"North Country," essentially a film treatise on women's rights, does a couple of things exceptionally well, and they are enough to make this 2005 release a worthwhile viewing experience whether you are a man or a woman. It reinforces the notion that all people are born equal and that women deserve the birthrights it's taken most of history for them to achieve; and it demonstrates that women actors have as much right to their own lives in film as male actors.
Let me explain that last bit. For most of Hollywood history up to and including today, women have had a short life span in movies. They have customarily had to be young and beautiful, and when they grew older (into their thirties and forties), no matter how important they were in their younger years, they have had to see their job opportunities grow slimmer. On the other hand, male actors generally continue as leading men well into their fifties and sixties, romancing women half their age as a matter of cinematic tradition. Yet, occasionally, a woman still young and beautiful challenges convention. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of a most unattractive woman in "Monster" (2003), and here in "North Country" she plays the initially unsympathetic role of an ordinary woman with a promiscuous past. Theron's willingness to take on tough, serious parts (and perhaps her good fortune in being able to obtain them) rather than content herself playing hapless heroines is a positive sign for all women in the film industry.
It's true that the idea of a movie being based on an inspirational true event, as this one is, is hardly new, and "North Country" may remind many viewers of films like "Norma Rae" or "Erin Brockovich." But when such movies contain performances and themes as powerful as they and "North Country" do, it's hard to argue with success.
The movie's preface states, "In 1975, the iron mines of Northern Minnesota hired their first female miner. By 1989, male employees still outnumbered females by thirty to one." The movie is set in 1989, where Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a mother of two (Elle Peterson and Thomas Curtis), has just left her abusive husband and moved in with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek). Encouraged by a friend named Glory (Frances McDormand), Josey gets a job in the mines to support herself and her children.
That's when the trouble starts. The men in the mines feel threatened by the female employees. They feel the women are taking jobs away from men, traditional heads of families. They feel women can't do the hard labor of men. They feel women are a distraction and cause accidents. Even Josey's father, a miner all his life, feels this way. As a result, we see the men of the mines harass the women mercilessly. Josey's predicament is worsened by people thinking of her as a woman of loose morals, her having the two children out of wedlock.
The movie's framework has the story told in flashback from the point of view of a jury trial. Not until halfway through the picture does the film tell us who and what is on trial, but it isn't hard for the viewer to figure out from the circumstances in which Josey finds herself. The men of the mine are chauvinist pigs, and many of them sexually harass the women no end, planting suggestive props in their lockers and lunch boxes, making crude jokes at the women's expense, writing obscene comments about them on the walls, touching and fondling them inappropriately, one miner going so far as to attack Josey while they're in a secluded area. To compound the situation, when Josey complains to her superiors about the treatment the men are giving the women miners, the men retaliate to a greater extent, and the women, fearing for their jobs, turn against her for stirring up trouble!
The response of the bosses and owner of the mine to this maltreatment is to do nothing. When Josey reports what's happening at the mine to the mine's owner, he tells her simply to quit. But she won't. With Glory's continued encouragement, Josey tries to stick it out. Glory, a union rep, tells her to ignore the "crap" the men dish out. Finally, with the help of a retired lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), Josey fights back. She sues the company for sexual harassment. Believe it or not, nobody had ever filed a class-action sexual harassment law suit against a major American company before, surprising given that this was done as recently as 1989. The result of the suit set a legal precedent that affected every company in America since.
Now, I know what some male readers are thinking right now: Another feminist, antimale, man-bashing diatribe. Well, yeah, it does get preachy, but you cannot deny that women don't deserve to engage in a little male-bashing, given the amount of time they've spent being suppressed by males. Heck, in many parts of the country, women didn't even have the right to serve on a jury until the mid twentieth century; and we all know they still don't receive equal pay for equal work. Besides, the movie relates a piece of American history. The narrative may not be exact in its details (it claims to be "inspired by a true story"), but it is undoubtedly true to the spirit of the real events. Everyone should know what those real events were.
Not that any of this praise is to suggest that "North Country" is a great movie, however. It didn't make my list of best-ten movies of the year, even though I liked the movie's sex-discrimination theme and its social importance. I liked the acting (the Academy nominated Theron for a Best Actress Oscar and McDormand for Best Supporting Actress). I especially liked Richard Jenkins as the father, who has the most moving speech in the film during a union meeting, a speech good enough to bring tears to the eyes, yet he was not Oscar nominated. I liked director Niki Caro's careful, deliberate pacing. I liked screenwriter Michael Seitzman's honest dialogue. And I liked the realism of the location shooting.
What I didn't care for as much were, among other things, the story's one-sidedness. No, obviously I don't disagree about the sexual harassment idea; what I mean is that we see virtually no one at the mine, man or woman, who isn't either a cretin or a submissive cretin sympathizer. There is one scene where a group of miner's deliberately knock over a portable toilet with a woman inside, and then we see several other men help the woman out. That's it for nice guys at the mine. The only two male characters in the movie who behave like decent human beings are Bill White, the lawyer, and Kyle (Sean Bean), the man with whom Glory lives; and the only male character who seems multidimensional is the father. Otherwise, the movie pretty much stacks the deck to make its point. Second, I didn't care for the movie's subplots involving Josey's family life, her parents, her friends, her lawyer, the whole community. I admit I rather enjoyed Josey's relationship with her son, who comes to hate his mother before eventually resolving the conflict; but otherwise these subplots are rather soap-operish, one subplot going so far as to show a major character dying of a dread disease. Third, I found the story entirely predictable. Even without knowing the facts of the real-life case, it's easy to see where all of it is going. Moreover, the movie reveals too much of the story line too early, during the trial scenes. Nevertheless, these are petty carps in light of the film's moral implications.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, and sometimes it's a wonder that change occurs at all. Women's rights have been a long time coming, and they're a long time overdue. Women have not yet reached the level playing field that reasonable-minded people hope they will achieve, but they're coming nearer, thanks to the kind of real-life folks who inspired this motion picture. "North Country" is a movie that somebody had to make.
The Warner Bros. engineers transferred the movie to disc in a considerably wide scope, very closely approximating its original 2.35:1 theatrical release ratio. The transfer is anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, and done up in a reasonably high bit rate. Although this care results in rich, often deep colors, the overall screen image remains more than a tad soft, sometimes slightly blurred and grainy, and lacking in ultimate definition. It's still quite good, just not quite state of the art.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 could hardly be bettered. It reproduces a big, strong bass and midrange, with ofttimes explosive dynamics. Good tonal balance, clarity, and quietness make dialogue easy to hear when ambient background noises or the musical score don't drown things out. And there is an excellent distribution of surround information, particularly during the lunchroom and crowd scenes.
The bonus items are slim, but they're more meaningful than most. The first item is a sixteen-minute making-of documentary, "Stories from the North Country." Unlike most making-of featurettes, in this one we hear from some of the actual participants in the class-action suit as well as the actors and other filmmakers. It's still a promotional piece for the movie, but at least it is serious and informative and contains more than merely the filmmakers patting themselves on the back. The second item is an eleven-minute segment of additional, widescreen deleted scenes that are fairly powerful in their own right. Lastly, we get a widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"What are you supposed to do when those with all the power are hurting those with none?" asks attorney Bill White. "Well, for starters, you stand up and tell the truth, even when you're all alone." This is the essence of "North Country," a story about one woman's fight to tell the truth--to the world, to her family, to herself, to her son. The movie comes together in the final half hour, and then it's a heartbreaker and an inspiration, despite my minor reservations about events preceding it.