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Dustin Putman

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North Country (2005)
3 Stars

Directed by Niki Caro
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan, Rusty Schwimmer, Thomas Curtis, Elle Peterson, James Cada, Linda Emond, Brad William Henke, Jillian Armenante, Amber Heard, John Aylard, Xander Berkeley, Corey Stoll, Cole Williams, Chris Mulkey
2005 – 130 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and dialogue relating to sexual harrassment, and for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 21, 2005.

Loosely based on a true story recounted in the book, "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law," by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, "North Country" is a powerful motion picture that tells of the first successful class action sexual harassment lawsuit. That these events did not take place in reality until 1984 is eye-opening, signifying how difficult it once was for such cases, particularly involving women, to be taken seriously, and how quickly times have evolved. Reminding one of such female-oriented blue-collar films of the past as 1982's "Norma Rae" and 1983's "Silkwood," "North Country" is a beautifully written and acted drama that earns its own identity, all the while giving a start to late-in-the-year projects worthy of the impending awards season.

In a stunningly multilayered performance as unblinkingly honest as it is unsentimental, Charlize Theron proves that her Oscar for 2003's "Monster" was no fluke. So much more than just a pretty face and able to transform into and embody each character she tackles, Theron stars here as Josey Aimes, a down-on-her-luck single mother who narrowly escapes a physically abusive relationship. Returning to her hometown in Northern Minnesota, Josey, wanting to make a living for herself and her children (Thomas Curtis, Elle Peterson) without having to live off parents Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek), gets a job at the local iron mines.

Viewed by the other workers as a man's job and discouraged right off the bat by the manager, Josey and her fellow women employees are almost instantly taunted and looked down upon. When Josey's complaints go unheard, matters only deteriorate toward more extreme instances of sexual harassment. With seemingly everyone advising her to keep her mouth shut or walk, Josey seeks the help of the only lawyer she knows, former hockey player Bill White (Woody Harrelson), in putting together a lawsuit against the mining company. Doing what she believes is right, however, may mean opening some doors about her past to the public that she would rather keep private.

Directed by Niki Caro (2003's "Whale Rider"), "North Country" is a realistic, emotionally resonant film made for grown-up audiences in a time when most theatrical releases are aimed at the teen demographic. Whipper-smart and, until a single moment during the climax, never falling into the temptation of melodrama, Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman (2000's "Here on Earth") have done a superlative job of bringing the true story of Lois Jensen to the screen. While many of the particulars have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes, the heart and soul of Jensen's story is never lost. Stark and achingly authentic in its portrayal of sexual harassment within the workplace, the picture doesn't sugarcoat the subject matter or shy away from the more ugly aspects of it.

At the center is Josey Aimes, a hard-working, well-meaning woman who, even in all of her flaws, is a person of great dignity who is worth rooting for. Dedicated to taking care of her children and unwilling to just sit back and take the abuse of her male co-workers, it is Josey's strong-minded nature, even amidst suffocating adversity, that paves the way for her sexual harassment lawsuit reaching the courts. Charlize Theron is mesmerizing as Josey, bringing a sense of years of hurt and disappointment to her character that makes the cause she stands for all the more important.

The supporting cast, nearly all the parts written with dimension and care, is just as memorably outstanding. Frances McDormand (2003's "Something's Gotta Give") exudes warmth and, finally, is heartbreaking, as Glory, Josey's best friend. For reasons left to be discovered on one's own, Glory's subplot could have felt out of place and maudlin in the wrong hands, but avoids such obvious trappings in preference of something more genuine. Richard Jenkins (2004's "Shall We Dance") and Sissy Spacek (2005's "The Ring Two") do excellent work as Josey's parents, at odds over their differing beliefs of whether the actions Josey is taking are right or wrong. Jenkins is especially effective during a key turning point for his character where, under strained circumstances, he finds himself sticking up for her in front of his fellow mine workers. And Woody Harrelson (2004's "After the Sunset") slides effortlessly into his role as Bill White, the lawyer willing to take Josey's case if for no other reason than because he knows he will be a part of history in the making.

From script to performance to editing to cinematography to story to thematic significance, all of the elements within "North Country" have come together to create a fully satisfying and mature entertainment. The outcome of Josey's fight isn't surprising, nor is the trajectory of the story, but the sumptuously developed, topflight treatment of the narrative is anything but conventional. This is a rock-solid drama, highly charged when need be, but also intimately human. "North Country" is one of the all-around strongest mainstream motion pictures of the year.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman