Photo by Richard Foreman

It’s been a while since Hollywood unleashed a big ol’ red-meat feminist
melodrama, the kind in which a lissome A-lister clad head to toe in J.C. Penney
socks it to the big guys on behalf of working women everywhere. I suspect the
reasons for this go beyond the fact that, absent Lindsay Lohan’s name on the marquee,
only women of a certain age will pay money to see such passé — and essential —
fare. Class and gender wars are, or ought to be, as urgent today as they ever
were, but in public discourse they’re neatly hidden behind those politically paralyzing,
media-stoked terrors of random weather, flu pandemics and terrorism. Good on Warner
Bros., then, for backing Niki Caro’s North Country, though I doubt whether
this fact-based yarn, about a Minnesota miner who slaps a sexual-harassment suit
on her corporate employer, would ever have gotten off the ground without Charlize
Theron attached.

Sophisticates will sniff at North Country. Inspired by a book by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler about a landmark 1980s class-action lawsuit, the movie is a slice of prime-cut populist theatrics, and none the worse for being headlined by Theron, even if she looks about as much like a Minnesota iron miner as I look like Charlize Theron. Short of the several pounds of makeup and serial-killer scowl she labored under for Monster, there’s no tamping down Theron’s radiant alabaster beauty or her physical grace. But for someone accustomed to kicking up her shapely heels for the Joffrey Ballet or swaying down a runway in Prada, Theron looks pretty damn persuasive in flannel shirts, a hardhat and liberal facial bruising (courtesy of a former husband who can’t keep his fists to himself). Like many a female Oscar winner, Theron seems to have gotten better offers from perfume companies than from film studios since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Monster, but along with Julia Roberts, when cast in the right role she’s one of the most earthy, forthright actresses working today. Which makes her a canny choice to play Josey Aimes, a single parent with a checkered romantic history, who nevertheless works up the guts to take on male-dominated unions and a giant corporation.

Given the trowel with which Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman pile on the grief for Josey, I’m guessing that her trials have been liberally fictionalized, though they’re hardly implausible. In addition to her own shaky self-esteem and a shop floor full of threatened men who find it amusing to write “Cunt” on the bathroom walls in their own feces or slip rubber penises into lunch pails, Josey must contend with a stubbornly unsupportive father (the always dependable Richard Jenkins), a painfully submissive mother (Sissy Spacek), a teenage son (Thomas Curtis) who’s furious at her for attracting negative attention, and, perhaps worst of all, her fellow woman workers, among them her friend Glory (played by Frances McDormand, who in another kind of movie business would have been cast as Josey), who fear that Josey’s activism will cost them the queasy status quo they’ve carved out for themselves, rubber dicks and all.

Caro, who made the handsomely mounted Whale Rider, was smart enough to hire legendary cinematographer Chris Menges, whose naturalistic lighting brings an aching, majestic beauty to the frozen Northern Minnesota backdrop. Still, there’s a TV-movie stiffness to North Country, which is conventionally structured by a courtroom drama that frames flashbacks to Josey’s early life and her struggles with a former boyfriend (Jeremy Renner) who singles her out for particularly vicious reprisal. The temper of the times, with its virulent antifeminist backlash, is glaringly (if fittingly) flagged by television footage of Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas.

North Country is more Norma Rae than Erin Brockovich: You can’t imagine Caro evoking the sheer, giddy fun of political combat the way Steven Soderbergh does, although Woody Harrelson is mischievously cast against type as Josey’s hesitant has-been of a lawyer, while Sean Bean moves out of villain mode to give a quietly impressive performance as Glory’s supportive husband. But North Country isn’t reductive either; it doesn’t divide neatly into beastly men and intrepid woman warriors, and Theron invests Josey’s growth from a downtrodden loser into a fighter with a delicate vulnerability; you understand there’s as much at stake in her fight with herself and her family as there is in her institutional battles. Without having read the book on which North Country is based, I find it difficult to believe that such an epic victory was won by one woman alone. Yet the movie’s old-school feminism is true to its subject, and Theron proves charismatic enough to stand alone as an emblematic working-class heroine doing what she has to do without benefit of feminist theory. I’m even willing to forgive this rousing drama its coy, flirty ending, if only because its heroine has the grace not to drive her pickup truck off a cliff.

on the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That
Changed Sexual Harassment Law
by NICK WECHSLER | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide

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