North Country: Niki Caro’s Tale, Inspired by True Story, Starring Charllize Theron

Too bad Charlize Theron had won an Oscar for “Monster,” a weak film in which she gave a splashy performance, for in “North Country,” She embodied a far more interesting and complex heroine in what’s easily her best work to date.

Inspired by a true story, “North Country” unfolds as a one woman’s journey on a road that took her farther than she ever imagined, ultimately inspiring countless others, and leading to the nation’s first-ever class action lawsuit for sexual harassment. Though a social problem picture—a battle for social justice, ultimately “North Country” is a film about human dignity, the story of an ordinary woman, who stood up and demanded respect for her. When Josey Aimes (Theron) takes a stand against the mining company where she works, she isn’t looking to become a leader or make a statement. She just wants what every parent wants, to make a decent life for herself and her family.

Niki Caro, whose insightful direction of Whale Rider earned accolades, makes an impressive Hollywood debut, one that centers again on female empowerment. The film is made in the tradition of Martin Ritt’s “Norma Rae and Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood,” two honorable films, inspired by real-life heroines who against all odds fought and won their cases, at a price; Karen Silkwood lost her life in the process.

“Norma Rae” won a 1979 Oscar for Sally Field and “Silkwood” conferred on Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination (right after winning Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice”). And now, “North Country” is likely to do the same for Theron, and for some of the other actors, particularly Frances McDormand, in what’s uniformly a stellar cast, the best ensemble to be seen in a Hollywood picture in a long time.

Michael Seitzman’s multi-layered, complex screenplay is inspired by the book, “Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler.

Josey, a single mother of two, newly separated and with nowhere to go, returns to her childhood home in Northern Minnesota, where her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) receive her with mixed emotions. Strong on tradition and mindful of their reputation in the small community, they believe she should reconcile with her husband, instead of striking out on her own. However, for Josey, this time, there’s no going back.

Determined to get back on her feet quickly, Josey enters the job market and finds limited opportunities, until a chance meeting with an old friend, Glory Dodge (McDormand), opens up a possibility she hadn’t even considered, the local mine. As one of the few women on the mining crew and the only female union rep since her husband Kyle (Sean Bean) was injured at work and permanently sidelined, Glory offers an honest picture of the job’s pros and cons. It’s tough, exhausting physical labor that will leave her muscles aching. The plant is grimy and dank, the pit can be treacherous and the air thick with soot, and worst of all, the predominately male workforce isn’t exactly welcoming.

Although many men are decent, there are a volatile few who take every opportunity to remind the women theyre not wanted there, with a steady stream of insults, innuendo, vulgar remarks, and pranks that tread, and often push, the line between locker-room humor and out-and-out harassment. The mine is like a free zone for them, where they can say and do things they might not say or do in town. The way they see it, these women have invaded their territory; if they don’t like it, they can quit.

Shell have to be tough, Glory warns. “Don’t show that it gets to you. Learn to give it right back to the guys or at least keep your mouth shut and go about your business.” Come payday, it’s all worthwhile. There isn’t a job in town that can match what Josey will make at the mine. She might even be able to buy her own home.

Encouraged by the promise of self-sufficiency, Josey signs up, despite her mother’s hushed but grave misgivings and her father’s clear opposition. A lifelong mining veteran himself, who staunchly oppose the integration of female workers, Hank takes his daughter’s decision as a personal affront. It’s the first indication of what Josey should expect from her job.

Though forewarned, Josey is still caught off-guard by the level of tension at the mine. Even more unsettling is her discovery that one of the offenders is a man she crossed paths with years ago and who might still harbor unresolved feelings about an incident in their past. Her former high school classmate, Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), is now a shift supervisor and one of her bosses. There are more immediate concerns, like the unpleasant surprise that turns up in her locker or in her lunchbox—a dildo.

The story investigates a grey area of male/female interaction and the gradations between the innocuous and the offensive. Though by necessity didactic (with speeches), it isn’t a black-and-white scenario or politically correct. “North Country” explores that from many angles the cumulative effect of Josey’s experience.

Where do you draw the line When Josey feels that the line has been crossed, she takes action. Starting with her immediate supervisor and then moving all the way up the chain to the company president, she voices her concerns and is consistently ignored, patronized or invited to resign. Problem is, she doesn’t wasn’t to resign, she wants to work.

Meanwhile, Josey has to face resistance and hostility from a completely unexpected quarter, her female co-workers, the women she is trying to help and whose support she was counting on.
It’s in this, most intriguing aspect that “North Country” differs from “Norma Rae” and “Silkwood.”

Still an outsider, Josey realizes that Glory and her friends and even young newcomer Sherry (Michelle Monaghan) have made their accommodations to the situation and resent her stirring things up. Each one of them, for reasons of her own, has accepted these difficult but lucrative positions and will fight to protect them.
The more Josey complains, the more the harassment escalates and the more personal it becomes.
In time, even her friendship with Glory suffers from the strain and the repercussions of her battle for respect, which spills out into the community at large, affecting her children at school and her parents’ relationships with their friends and with each other.

Fortunately, “North Country” isn’t a simplistic story in which all the men are evil and all the women are good. There are instances in which both men and women behave appallingly and others in which they show compassion. Also a plus is the framing of the conflict as a question of survival. Josey enters a world where tensions are already high and where the existing, predominantly male workforce, is threatened by what they see as women coming in and taking their jobs.

Josey’s growing commitment to be heard finally finds an unexpected ally in Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a hometown lawyer newly returned from his own personal and professional disappointments in New York. Knowing she has little chance of winning on her own, White attempts to break legal ground with Josey by filing an unprecedented class action lawsuit for sexual harassment.

The non-linear structure of Seitzman’s script illustrates how events of the past, especially in a small community, are inevitably brought to bear upon the present. The narrative opens with a brief courtroom scene to anchor the action before reaching back to reveal key episodes leading up to it. The courtroom serves as the story’s engine, helping to navigate us through Josey’s life.

The film offers a look into life on the Iron Range, and the personal battles waged by the workers against the management and against one another, North Country also touches upon the connections between Josey and the residents of this tightly knit community, offering insights into what sustains them, and also what keeps them together.

Though plot-driven, it’s the dynamics of the characters that really drive the story. Many conflicts play out against the backdrop of the mines: Josey’s difficult relationship with her father, her father’s initial rancor towards her and then his gradual comprehension of what things are like from her side; Josey’s struggle as a single mother, and in particular with her teenage son who suffers the fallout of her lawsuit from the other kids at school; her friendship with the other women and their growing opposition to her once she decides to take on the establishment; the tense interplay between Josey and Bobby Sharp.

Two stories unfold concurrently. One is about a woman going to work in the iron mines and the men who don’t want her there. The other is about a woman coming to terms with her past, and how that affects her family and her future. Caro exploits the potential nuance and impact of these interlocking dramas to the fullest, keeping the story grounded and specific. Her ability to convey complex emotional stories in a non-melodramatic way is admirable, even if she succumbs occasionally to preachy didactism.

What’s uplifting about the film is Josey’s courage to challenge the mine and bring these experiences to light even when she has no support. As a working-class protagonist, Josey doesn’t realize she has that incredible internal fortitude and ability. She discovers it only when she gets herelf into situations that require it, or realizes some truths not seen by others. The road she takes is a lonely but a chosen one, but Josey does pave the way for others.

The film’s two most interesting supporting characters are Glory and Bill. Glory is a character that begins in one way and transforms into something different as the strong and self-sufficient woman is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and begins to fight, then slowly succumb to her progressive illness while trying to hold onto her job and position in the community.

The natural interplay between Glory and Josey is portrayed with restraint. Their scenes together are some of the movie’s most emotional and rewarding ones. In a scene that takes place in the women’s locker room at the mine after Josey has just gone through harsh treatment and Glory finds her crying. Instead of comforting her with a big sweet hug, Glory says, look, you just have to get over it. If you give in, youre doing exactly what they want you to do.

As close as they are, the women have different reactions to their situation. Glory’s been working in the mine longer than Josey. She has an established position in the community and she’s the female union rep so she’s earned a certain amount of respect from her fellow miners. Part of the reason she remains above the fray is because she’s learned to overlook the pranks and the innuendo.

As Glory’s illness progresses, she relies more upon her husband Kyle. Kyle is introduced as a stay-at-home spouse, sidelined some time earlier by a mining injury at the same company where Glory now “drives truck.” In a traditional role reversal that a less confident man might not have been able to accept, Kyle maintains their home and keeps a low profile, while Glory gains momentum at the mine. Then, as Glory develops ALS and starts to lose control over elements of her life, their roles shift again and Kyle takes charge, literally becoming her voice. The relationship between Kyle and Glory is one of love and romance, and one of the most positive portraits of marriage to be seen in a Hollywood movie in a long time.

Stepping up as Josey’s first real ally, albeit reluctantly, is hometown attorney Bill White. Bill’s vulnerability is based in part on his self-doubts, both as a lawyer and a person. Initially, the prospect of trying Josey’s case is as daunting for him as it is for her. Bill has returned to the Iron Range after having left for New York where he joined a big law firm, got married and then divorced. The one-time high school hockey star that left town to pursue his dreams now finds that his career and personal life haven’t turned out the way he expected and he’s in a bitter funk when first met.

At first, he’s hesitant to take Josey’s case against the mine because his expertise at the law firm was in negotiating settlements, not going to trial. Eventually, Bill is intrigued by the idea of breaking legal ground with the nation’s first-ever class action sexual harassment suit. Forced to rise above his own misgivings, he takes the case. Like Jose, Bill gets the chance to rediscover his self-respect and his sense of justice.