Charlize Theron is up for her second Oscar for her performance in North Country and while the smart money seems to be on Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line we wouldn't be surprised if she's the one holding the little chap by the neck at the end of the night. She's VERY good in this and well supported by the cast and director.
It's a story that could have easily wandered into 'true-life' daytime TV territory, but an unflinching look at the issue of sexual harassment in a very male orientated workplace helps to keep the film on track. That said the actual court case that all this was based on lasted for ten years and with further hearings for damages it only wrapped up in 1998 which is mind blowing in itself. Squeezing that into a two hour movie means you expect some corners to be cut hence the film being very open from the beginning credits as being inspired by factual events. Criticism that the film is too one sided or light are pretty much unfounded as anything that brings this subject to a wider audience is a good thing. If nothing else it provides a solid jumping off point for discussion while remaining a great little movie no matter what Peter Bradshaw thinks*.
Theron plays single mother of two Josey Aimes who finds herself back home with mum and dad, struggling to start again and find her independence after leaving an abusive husband. Her parents are not too supportive seeing marriage as something to be worked at - Sissy Spacek is great as her overshadowed mother while Richard Jenkins is crushing as the father who blames his daughter for acting up enough to get herself hit. A lifeline is offered by vacancies at the local mine - the lifeblood of the town and only recently forced to open its doors to female workers. The pay is great, her friend (Frances McDormand) already works there and it would provide the means for her to stand on her own two feet. That her father works there along with an old school sweetheart initially makes things difficult, but once the harassment kicks in on a large scale it becomes an everyday battle for respect. Things escalate (sex toys in lunchboxes, semen on clothes, physical and sexual assault) and Josey finds herself almost alone in her belief that this is wrong with even her son turning his back on her.
Local boy done good Woody Harrelson steps in and agrees to fight for Josey in court - a decision based more on the fact that this would be the first ever class action of its kind than his feelings over whether it's the right thing to do. This means that more women than just Josey must stand up for themselves and the slow gathering of support is key to the film's final courtroom sequences. It's scary to think that as recently ago as the eighties that it was women as well as men that accepted sexual harassment as just part of the job - a price to pay for acceptance when of course in such male dominated environments females were never accepted.
Frances McDormand shines as the friend with her own problems while Sean Bean playing her non mineworker husband has a small but vital part to play. We'd love to see him do more of this kind of thing as he's a great character actor and unless he needs a new house should really steer clear of crap like Flightplan and National Treasure (although it's easy to imagine him rolling around on conveyor belts between takes pretending he's still 006). Woody Harrelson who we've seen on stage acting his socks off on more than one occasion can do this kind of role in his sleep - odd to see how far he's come since 'Cheers'.
North Country is the best thing that Theron has been in since Monster and it's refreshing to see an intelligent actress jump between projects like this and the upcoming fetish fest that Aeon Flux promises to be. The scenes with her family are particularly good as she tries to reach her son after both her and his life are torn up in court. It's an emotional performance, but she's equally adept at standing her ground as breaking down and it's easy to cheer on her nomination as best actress this year.
If the film has a flaw it's that it's perhaps all tied up a little too neatly by the end, but as the film is made by Participant Productions**, a company committed to making films that are both "commercially viable and socially relevant" we can easily forgive it. In fact the company was founded by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll, so if you ever sold or bought something on his website then in a roundabout way you helped to get North Country made. In a world when a film about a giant ape costs $207 million it's good to know that there is still room for smaller films to shine and have something important to say.
IMDB fact of the day: The supposed human waste was actually made of Gatorade, Coco Puffs, and pumpkin pie fillings. Good. To. Know.
* we normally enjoy Bradders, but decrying the actions of the lead character because he believes she'd find it easier to get a job modeling or making movies leaves him way out of touch on this one.
** Participant Productions also had a hand in Murderball, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana and the upcoming Fast Food Nation among others.