Dir: Niki Caro. US. 2005.123mins.
After scoring a worldwidehit with the Oscar-nominated Whale Rider, New Zealand director Niki Caromakes a strong follow-up with her first Hollywood movie North Country.
Loosely based on the truestory of a Minnesota woman crusading against sexual harassment in theworkplace, the film is compelling social issues storytelling in the classictradition of Silkwood, Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich. Likethose films, it pushes all the right buttons as a moving triumph-over-injusticesaga and naturally features a crackerjack lead performance, here from actressdu jour Charlize Theron.
Inspired by the true storyof Lois Jensen, who sued Eveleth Mines in 1988, the film weaves fictional plotstrands into the drama about the first women who went to work at a mine innorthern Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s and the daily abuse and humiliationsinflicted on them.
Caro and screenwriterMichael Seitzman have pulled out all the stops to load Theron's character JoseyAimes with troubles - she's the victim of spousal abuse and childhood traumasbefore she even gets to the mine - and narrowly avoid laying it on too thick,largely because Theron makes her so plausible.
It's not an easy film tostomach - the scenes of the women being physically and verbally mistreated arerelentless - but it will certainly find a large adult audience, especiallyamong women, and if it doesn't rival Erin Brockovich in box-officereturns, it will be boosted by awards attention.
As she did with the Whangaracommunity in Whale Rider, Caro gets under the skin of the northernMinnesotan setting she focuses on, aided by master cinematographer Chris Mengeswho creates a starkly beautiful palette of grey and brown hues in documenting thebrutal winters of the region.
Theron's Josey starts thefilm abandoning her abusive husband with her two children - the eldest of who,Sammy (Thomas Curtis), was born of a different father than her husband - andreturning to her hometown in northern Minnesota, the north country of thetitle.
Her parents (Jenkins,Spacek) are traditional folk and not happy at her return home, disapprovingthat she has abandoned her marriage, even though she is sporting the bruises onher face from the beatings she received.
Determined to get a house ofher own, Josey is encouraged by her old friend Glory (McDormand) to get awell-paid job at the local iron mine, a workplace long dominated by men. Shejoins the thin ranks of women blasting ore from the rocks, but meets withhostility from the male co-workers who resent the women competing with them forthe scarce jobs they believe are theirs by right. Among the resentfulmineworkers is her own father.
Josey and her femaleco-workers (among them Michelle Monaghan) encounter stunning levels ofharassment from the men - physical attacks, constant sexual humiliations andmolestation, verbal and written abuse, excrement and semen in their lockerrooms. One of the men Bobby Sharp (Renner), an old boyfriend of Josey's fromhigh school, starts spreading rumours about her in the town and soon she is thelocal pariah, hated by all including her own son.
But Josey determines tobring the men to justice and with the help of a reluctant attorney (Harrelson),she files a class action lawsuit against the mining company.
The story takes anunexpected twist in the courtroom when questions over the paternity of her sonSammy take centre stage.
It's a rich, complex dramatold by Caro with a palpable passion and acted by a superb ensemble, all affectingthe distinct Minnesota accent - McDormand is of course well-practiced after Fargo.
It's hard to believe thatjust a few years ago Theron was nothing more than the love interest in a slewof mediocre studio movies. Here she embodies the character of a good-lookingworking class woman who has dealt with the unwanted attentions of men since shewas a teenager. She's got the spunk of Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich but herJosey Aimes is more vulnerable and damaged than those crusaders.
Theron is immediately afrontrunner for another Oscar nomination, and there is some noteworthy supportfrom McDormand, whose character begins a tragic slide into Lou Gehrig'sdisease, and Jenkins whose transformation from frosty and ashamed to supportiveand proud is highly convincing.
The film is one of the firstco-financing ventures from Participant Productions, the socially relevant movieproduction outfit set up by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll. It's a strong start forthe company.
Warner Bros Pictures
From the book Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual HarassmentLaw by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler