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May 12, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Niki Caro’s in a tough spot. For starters, following up her debut, Whale Rider, is no easy task. That film was a standout in 2003, a remarkably mature story about a 12-year-old girl whose destiny is to eventually assume leadership of her Maori tribe. Additionally, her new film, North Country, is based on a true story. The outcome of the events has already been recorded and reported, and the movie’s press reveals the whole story: Facing sexual harassment in the late 1980s and early ’90s, one woman at a Minnesota mine brought the first class-action suit in the matter against her employers and won. Making a movie about a historical event is no small feat; since there’s no way to keep the audience guessing about the outcome (in this case, the screenplay pretty much broadcasts its intentions from the start), it’s up to the filmmaker to create involving characters and suspense from unchangeable situations. Ron Howard did an admirable job on this front with Apollo 13, largely thanks to the solid effects team and another reliable human portrait from Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, Caro doesn’t fare as well. Although star Charlize Theron is undeniably watchable, even though it’s obvious she’s taking another “plain woman” role and gunning for an Oscar, it’s not enough to turn North Country into the grand-scale feature it wants to be. Despite a solid cast, including Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and a remarkably sober Woody Harrelson, the film has all the feel of a TV movie, something more suited for Lifetime late night than the cineplex marquee. Granted, Caro’s film is sadder and more layered than a TV movie would be, but just barely. She’s given us a by-the-numbers tale of empowerment in dark hours, of triumph against the machine. In other words, it should do well at the Academy Awards.

Theron is Josey Aimes, mother of two and wife to an abusive husband, living in northern Minnesota in 1989. It’s a lifestyle of mullets and feathered hair, of flannel shirts and serious discussions about hockey, and of horribly outmoded sexual politics. The women here are expected to take their beatings as just another part of the territory, like snow tires or trailer homes. Josey moves in with her parents to escape her husband, and after a brief stint working at a salon, she decides to take a job at the local steel mine after seeing how much money her friend, Glory (McDormand), is making. The mine began hiring women in 1975, but even by 1989, male employees still outnumbered the female ones by 30 to 1. (I learned that fact thanks to the title card at the beginning, another of the hallmarks of strained seriousness, the kind of solemn intro they used to stick on those After School Specials.) Once she arrives, she’s forced to deal with hazing from the men, including a dildo in her lunch and insults smeared in human feces on the wall of the women’s locker room. Management won’t hear her complaints, so she decides to fight back on her own, one woman against the world, taking justice into her hands just like Mr. Majestyk — actually, she decides to fight back by suing her bosses. A little less exciting, yes, but it works.

(I guess I should remind you of that right now: Josie wins. The mine company is forced to change its policies, and the case’s decision has an effect on every company in the country. Did that spoil it for you? Too bad. If you couldn’t see that one coming, then you (a) are unaware of sexual harassment procedures in the U.S., and (b) probably had someone turn on the Internet for you just now.)

So Josie hires local lawyer Bill White (Harrelson), and they set out trying to round up more women to come on board with the suit so they can change the steel mine’s ways. The second act drags, but there are moments when Caro shows some genuine emotion between the characters.

Caro’s film isn’t a bad one. In fact, it’s pretty good. Theron has turned into a legitimately talented actress; she’s a long way here from The Devil’s Advocate, and she knows it. Her accent and body language ground Josie in reality right away, and her performance carries the film. Likewise, Harrelson does well in a restrained performance, and proves there just might be something more to him than dumb bartender or basketball hustler. (I said “might.”) But the real question: Why make this film at all?

For all her skill, Caro can’t invest any more power in the story than is already there, and the heavy parallels to the Anita Hill hearings, unfolding as Josie pursues her own case, only distract from the story at hand. Caro gives us heroes, villains, and predictable character arcs instead of something more challenging. Sure, I was able to admire the performances, as well as what the real women went through, but not much else. Theron’s character is based on a woman named Lois Jenson, who has come out in support of the film, despite initial resistance to the idea. Jenson has expressed concern that the film is a little short on showing the men who supported the women’s cause, but such real-world complexities don’t appear too often in the film. In fact, Jenson’s take on the story is better than the film: “The core issue, I think, is it’s not men versus women,” Jenson said. “It’s individuals trying to figure it out. You know, good people are good people, but they do bad things, and bad people do good things.” Wow. Maybe Jenson should have directed.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

North Country / Daniel Carlson

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