North Country is inspired by the story of Lois Jenson, a miner whose lawsuit against her company became the first class-action sexual-harassment case in the United States. Hollywood luminaries Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand lead a stellar cast, and Niki Caro, the New Zealander who wrote and directed the widely acclaimed Whale Rider, sat in the director's chair-but don't expect Silkwood, Norma Rae or even Erin Brockovich. While the performances are flawless, Michael Seitzman's screenplay is embarrassingly sophomoric (his previous script was Here on Earth), so much so that the film's denouement completely obliterates its feminist message.
Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), the film's working-class hero, is a teenage mother and a battered wife who prevails despite incredible odds. Josey's real-life counterpart, and the other women miners who eventually joined her lawsuit, shared a $3.5 million settlement, but that was 14 years after Jenson had first filed a complaint with the Minnesota Human Rights Commission. During that time, she and her fellow plaintiffs endured several trials and long appeals; a judge who gave the mining company access to their complete medical records; and a magistrate who published a report which revealed many details of their private lives. Before the 1989 settlement, Jenson would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and quit her job, and another woman (portrayed in the film by McDormand) would die of Lou Gehrig's disease.
North Country borrows from the book Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, which chronicles the landmark case, Jenson v. Eveleth Mines. Opening with a courtroom scene, the movie replaces Josey's spoken testimony with flashbacks, and then gradually spins out of control. While Niki Caro's facility for revealing the emotion behind the narrative is evident throughout the film, especially in brief, evocative scenes involving Josey and her parents, the flashback structure quickly disintegrates. Much of the action is shot from Josey's point of view, but at least half of it is not. Some characters have personal lives, like McDormand's Glory and her live-in boyfriend Kyle (Sean Bean), but the tougher women at the mine do not, despite the fact that they are central to the story. Although the setting is a mine, we see very little of it. Instead, the camera soars, inexplicably, above ground, over the frozen Minnesota "north country."
North Country will undoubtedly be compared, unfavorably, to Mike Nichols' Silkwood and Martin Ritt's Norma Rae. For one thing, Josey never ages. Although she spends her days cleaning viscous black stuff from the machinery at the mine, her skin sustains a spa-like glow. In fact, Theron's face is probably misplaced here: She isn't country enough. In Nichols' film, Karen Silkwood, whose life was continually threatened by the men at her company-she is eventually murdered-endures incredible physical, emotional and psychological strain. The toll can be measured in Meryl Streep's increasing ennui. In North Country, that manifold isolation, Josey's inability to convince the other women to join her fight, as well as her estrangement from her parents and her son, leads only to dewy eyes, which never actually erupt into tears. The restraint, an attempt to illustrate Josey's courage, is as unrealistic as the one-dimensional hostility which characterizes every one of those who fail to come to her aid.
Unlike in Silkwood and Norma Rae, in North Country we rarely see the women working: Instead, the film devotes itself, unrelentingly, to illustrating each one of the male miner's disgusting acts of sexual harassment. Rather than the graphic, ever-present dangers of the women in Norma Rae, the clangorous machines, the poisonous air, the grueling shifts, and, of course, the death threats delivered to Norma Rae (Sally Field) and her union compatriots, everything that made Martin Ritt's film atmospheric and unforgettable is absent here.
Although North Country slowly unravels, the cast does not. While Theron and McDormand are good, their performances are marred by their long exposure to the script. Richard Jenkins, as Josey's adamantine father, is riveting, and in a few meaningful scenes, mostly without dialogue, provides the psychological prologue to Josey's later victimization. Sissy Spacek as Josey's mother is a powerful presence in the film, although her character is the best representation of everything that's wrong with the screenplay: She is initially one of the instruments of Josey's oppression, but becomes the transformative figure in the drama of her daughter's long struggle against male sexual aggression-and male aggression is what North Country is really about.
The final insult of the screenplay is the fact that everyone who has opposed Josey's struggle against the mining company rallies to her side only after she reveals the source of her undeserved reputation as a teenage harlot. If Josey began life as Mary Magdalene in small-town Minnesota, she's redeemed as the Virgin Mother at the end of North Country. It's callow and silly, and dismissive of the real dimensions of the lives of female whistleblowers like Lois Jenson-and emblematic of everything that's wrong with this movie.