Having found success smudging up her fine-boned looks and adopting a low-rent regional accent in Monster, Charlize Theron goes grubby again in Niki Caro's North Country, a gritty but rah-rah drama about women miners toiling amid the harsh conditions of Minnesota's Iron Range. Inspired by a true account -- the decidedly less marketable-sounding book, Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law -- the film tracks the woes of single mom Josey (Theron) as she and a handful of other hardscrabble women encounter abuse from hostile male co-workers -- until, that is, Josey opts to fight the system.
Clearly Caro, who made the chick-centric crowd-pleaser Whale Rider, wants to tell a rallying story, both of Josey and of the larger social, economic and legal issues that workplace sexual harassment entails. But by condensing so much into a personal story, replete with its own domestic melodramas (kids, parents, sick friends), North Country plays like a highlight reel from a tough-luck life.
What's missing are the small moments that make these embattled characters feel real, people we can relate to. It's a shame because the film has a capable cast -- including Sissy Spacek and Sean Bean, who effectively downplay the table-thumping drama asked of them. Not so Frances McDormand, who plays Josey's union rep with swaggering brio and a nasal twang that sounds like a personal challenge to top her phonetic work in Fargo.
Caro makes much of the mine's remoteness -- in a lovely sequence, we fly in, over miles of snow-covered nothing before encountering the enormous raw pit and its comparably large outbuildings -- and the hardship of the job. But such techniques also help ghettoize the injustice, as if such situations occur only on the wild, wooly fringes of civilization. It's not that the incidents depicted in this film are so outrageous or unbelievable; but compressing them all into a two-hour movie makes the abuse seem cartoonishly huge. By the film's second half, I felt as if I were repeatedly being hit over the head with the hard mallet of injustice-against-women.
By contrast, the woman whose story "inspired" this film logged 25 years between signing on at the mine and her ultimate vindication, including a 12-year legal battle that probably didn't include any surprise witnesses with shocking and exculpatory evidence.
After mining the workplace for drama, North Country resolves in an episode of courtroom shenanigans that even the hacks at Law and Order would recoil from in procedural horror. From habit, you'll cheer for Josie's purely scripted victory, but ultimately such dramatic cheats and fantasy narratives are an insult to life's hard realities and those real people who fight against them.