North Country

Movie Information

Genre: Message Picture
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, Thomas Curtis
Rated: R

The very fact that there’s nothing wrong with North Country may be what’s wrong with it. The film is so efficient at being exactly what it sets out to be that it could become the classic text for a filmmaking class called “Crafting the Message Picture 101″ (as well as a supplementary teaching aid for such other courses as “Writing the Perfect Oscar-Bait Speech”).

The film is a bit like watching the inner workings of a finely made watch — easy to admire for a minute or two, but once you see that it’s going to keep doing exactly the same thing, the attraction palls pretty fast.

No less than three movies opened this weekend emblazoned with the phrase “inspired by a true story” (one of them even incorporates the slogan into its title!). This appears to be the current Big Thing in Hollywood. I guess it’s an attempt to compete with “reality” TV, but with the advantage of the extreme elasticity allowed by that word “inspired.” This leaves the filmmakers free to peddle the same old banana oil Hollywood has loved since it started churning out Biograph one-reelers in 1908.

I certainly wouldn’t claim that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and screenwriter Michael Seitzman (Here on Earth) aren’t perfectly earnest, well-intentioned and, yes, inspired in their attempt to translate the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law to film. Unfortunately, they’re so inspired that they want to make sure that the importance of the material is not only underlined, but italicized in bold in 96-point type. This not only causes them to carve out a heavily fictionalized story decked out in contrivances that are painstakingly set up — and painfully obvious — but also to shift the time period around so they can draw a clumsy parallel with Anita Hill testifying about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. It’s the sort of “touch” — one of many — that makes it hard not to suspect that the filmmakers distrust the actual source material, and impossible not to realize that they’re dealing from a very stacked deck indeed.

Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is one of the most put-upon heroines of all time. The story starts with her fleeing her abusive spousal equivalent (Marcus Chait, Million Dollar Baby) and ending up with her parents, who don’t exactly welcome their wayward child with open arms. Mom (Sissy Spacek) and Dad (Richard Jenkins, Shall We Dance?) are both of the “work things out” school, prone to think that either Josey gave her partner good reason to punch the crap out of her, or that he was probably drunk at the time and it should be overlooked. In the immortal words of Thelma Ritter in All About Eve, Josey’s got “everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”

Things only get worse when Josey opts to go to work in the same iron mine as her father. And they get worse than that when she finds that she and her female co-workers are treated with the most overt sexual and physical abuse imaginable by their almost 100 percent uber-yahoo male counterparts. The nasty antics indulged in include — but are not limited to — inappropriate comments, childish drawings, indelicate gropings, writing dirty words on the walls with excrement (one wonders what hapless chauvinist was given this job), overturning a sewage-brimming portable toilet while a female worker is in it, and something close to attempted rape. Do I doubt that all these things have happened at one time or another? Not in the least. Do I believe that they are likely to have happened in a concentrated dose and only one fairly spineless male raised an objection? No, not really.

And the contrivances don’t stop there. The film drags in Frances McDormand as a tough-cookie union steward suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, whose eventual courtroom appearance in the final stages of the disease unfortunately recalls a similar moment involving an iron lung in John Waters’ Cry Baby. We’re also treated to a teenage rape — thereby making Josey even more of a victim and more palatable to the viewer — that replaces questions about her supposed promiscuous sexual history, and an improbable climax that might as well have everyone saying, “I am Spartacus.” There’s all of this and time out for the obligatory Oscar-winning speech done in as few takes as possible to ensure we don’t miss Theron’s acting ability.

And from a crowd-pleasing standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but the utter lack of subtlety and the fact that you can predict absolutely everything that happens well in advance turns it into a clockwork-message picture, which its high ideals and technical prowess can’t overcome. Rated R for sequences involving sexual harassment, including violence and dialogue, and for language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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