Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner, Michelle Monaghan with Woody Harrelson and Sissy Spacek
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 Widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Making-of Documentary: Stories from the North Country;
Additional Scenes; Theatrical Trailer
Length: 126 minutes
Inspired by the events of the nation’s first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit (which ran from the 1980s to the 1990s), North Country is a fictionalized film version of the actions of women who broke the gender barrier in northern Minnesota’s iron mines. When its main character, Josey Aimes, stands up for herself, the film moves along with her. The characters who surround her – including family, friends, and coworkers – take oppositional positions as Josey develops, but the strength of her convictions is powerful. Not only does she leave behind an abusive boyfriend, she takes on a job that gives her financial independence from her past so she is able to support two children. Her job, though, haunts her like her past might if she were to let it. The film’s story line brings Josey’s past in to the present so that truths can be turned into the evidence that will eventually deflate the tumultuous fabrications heating much of the courtroom debate during the proceedings.
How well does director Niki Caro present this story of workers of the world? How powerful is the personal in this film and what is the focus on the politics of labor? Oscar-nominated Charlize Theron portrays Josey Aimes with a performance that could well inspire many viewers to find out more about the true story the film is based on. Josey doesn’t aim to subvert authority; instead, she aims to be treated like the human being she is. She wants to be free of the threats, attacks, and insults which plague her on the job. Though not able to quit her job because it pays so well (allowing her to buy a home and provide for her children–both of which she has never done before), she is still not able to withstand the daily degradation of sexual harassment at work. Theron is convincing as both a vulnerable and strong woman who has had enough of life’s hardships and is willing to risk the publicity and pain that a “nuts or sluts” defense (termed as such by her attorney) might bring. Viewers can readily understand a compelling story of personal empowerment. The corporate world of the mining industry is more nuanced, although the viewer is able to understand the white collar representatives of the industry through their tenacity to play a political, dirty game as well.
Some may believe the film’s impact is diminished because political machinery is not as central as it could be. What is central to the film, though, are the workers’ livelihoods and their loyalties to one another. While this may not set up a more abstract or intellectual conflict in the film, the personal conflicts remain universal and are worth exploring. Caro prefers to examine workers who are not intent on an uprising, but who instead, must decide to align their loyalties with the truth which others’ behavior implies (that sexual harassment is unfair and degrading) or with simply getting by day to day in a hard labor job (in which sexual harassment can be expected).
During the lawsuit, Josey must prove her credibility in ways she hadn’t imagined. Events from her past, which can only be corroborated by Bobby Sharp, a miner who is intent on lying and sexually harassing her, color the willingness of other women miners to admit they are also sexually harassed on the job. This threatens the chances of setting up a class action— the only way Josey can make her point. Likewise, her friendship with Glory, the woman miner who proposed that Josey work at the mine, and who also has more respect of the men miners than any of the other women at the mine, is threatened. (This performance by Frances McDormand earned her an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category.) Josey must also gain back the respect and love of a son, who becomes lost in the turmoil of the town’s mining community while it perpetuates the stories which could prove to be Josey’s undoing.
Of the Special Features on the DVD, “Stories from the North Country” may help to put the issues at work in the film in perspective. Three of the actual plaintiffs in the class action are featured. Their stories remind us that women have had to struggle for their places in traditionally male occupations. Commentary from the National Organization for Women is also provided and can readily be appreciated by men and women who are interested in anyone’s stories of the struggle for basic human rights.
North Country gives viewers a look at a story that changed the lives of women who chose to stand up against on-the-job sexual harassment. It is worthy of its two Oscar nominations and its focus on the empowerment of women. Because Caro chooses to focus on a story line of family loyalties and personalities doesn’t mean she should be dismissed for rendering a series of precedent-setting events as light fiction. The film does not deal with the intellectual side to the politics of sexual harassment. But it possesses a wisdom about its topic and the complexities of it that cannot and should not be missed.
– Patricia Rimmer