North Country

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law

(2003), Clara Bingham

Set in 1989 Minnesota, North Country was inspired by the true story of a woman who led the charge in a court action against her employer, an iron mining operation, whose male rank-and-file employees deeply resented–and expressed in crude misbehaviors–the incursion of women into their traditionally all male bastion. Management resisted taking any action to remedy the situation and a class action lawsuit for sexual harassment became the first of its kind, prevailed in the courts and set a new standard and a precedent for employers throughout the United States.

Screenwriter Michael Seitzman created a fictional character for the historical one, here Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron), who flees an abusive husband with her two kids, returning to her parent’s home to a mixed reception. Her father, Hank (Richard Jenkins in a finely understated performance), carries deep shame over Josey’s son, born out of wedlock; single mothers were not exactly au courant in small town America and Hank assumes Josey to have been promiscuous. But as her sympathetic mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek) lectures him at one point, "She had a baby, she didn’t rob a bank!"

Josie gets a job in a salon, but she is encouraged by her friend, Glory (Frances McDormand), to apply for work at the iron mine, where she can earn six times what she does washing hair. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) creates a strong sense of place, with the snowy Minnesota landscape, the open pit mines where explosives are used to break up the ore, and the noisy, smoky, dusty, toxic atmosphere of the processing plant.

What follows is a series of harassment incidents, against Josie and other women miners, ranging from a dildo placed in a lunchbox, to inappropriate groping, to near rape, as well as non-sexually specific scatological pranks. The men cover up for one another and the union is nonresponsive, as are supervisors and top level management. And in small town Minnesota, the resentments spread beyond the workplace into the town itself, affecting Josie, her parents and her kids. She is determined to survive in the job–it provides her the independence to buy a house, even if it is one that gives new meaning to the term "fixer-upper."

Theron, who won an Oscar for the 2003 Monster, recovers here from her dismal performance in last year’s Head in the Clouds. She is fully credible as a working class mother and a victim who has the determination to fight back. But, as written and directed, the role is conceived at such a consistently intense emotional level that the overall effect is diluted. Indeed, much the same came be said for the film overall. The all too little comic relief comes from McDormand (City by the Sea, Almost Famous) who captures the toughness, the smarts, the sense of humor and the quick mouth of Glory.

The climactic courtroom scene is undermined by poor writing and an unconvincing performance by Woody Harrelson (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Play it to the Bone) as Josie’s lawyer. And overall, the film is so steeped in overwrought emotion that it verges on melodrama, rather the the genuine drama that the content merits.

Still, despite its flaws, North Country delivers a story worth hearing, a documentation of profound unfairness and the need to challenge abusive behaviors.

Arthur Lazere

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