On more than one occasion, this reviewer has been known to exclaim “God Bless Gloria Steinem.” It’s not that I necessarily want to celebrate somebody who thinks I’m as useless to her as a bicycle is to a fish. It’s just my way of saying thanks to all those people — male and female — who thought there was something wrong with the fact that half of America’s population was once considered inferior to the other half simply by reason of their gender.
To put it another way: For women, the good old days really, really sucked.
As seen in the new drama “North Country,” the good old days particularly sucked when women tried to break into the high-paying blue-collar jobs that had previously been reserved for men. Based on a landmark 1984 sexual harassment lawsuit (Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, for anyone wanting to Google up some background), “North Country” is a social horror movie, the chronicle of what can happen to an unprotected minority in a hostile workplace. Though the energy of the film is somewhat diffused by a structure that bounces back and forth between courtroom drama and the gritty world of work, it’s still a powerful film, full of performances that might well draw attention from Oscar.
Charlize Theron stars as Josey Aimes, a single mother living in northern Minnesota’s iron-mining country who decides to go to work at the local mine with the first batch of females hired by the company after a Supreme Court decision said they had to make room for women. With the help of old hand and friend Glory (Frances McDormand), she and other females make their way for awhile, daily suffering sexually charged torments from male co-workers, up to and including attempted rape. After Josey goes to the home office in Minneapolis to complain to the company chairman, the abuse redoubles for her and stretches beyond the workplace, with her kids feeling the sting of ostracism at school and Josey’s iron ore miner father turning on her because of his allegiance to his job. After a particularly brutal assault at work, Josey seeks out an old-hockey-star-turned-lawyer (Woody Harrelson) and decides to sue. The problem: The judge won’t let the case go forward as a class-action unless she can find two more women who will stand with her against the mine and tell what went on there.
Theron is good here (though her performance comes nowhere near her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster”), filling the screen up with her confusion, hurt, and pain. Stealing the show, however, is Frances McDormand, in an understated role as the mine’s first female union boss, who goes against her “men-will-be-men” philosophy to back Josey’s play. Not to spoil the end of the movie for you, but suffice it to say that McDormand likely will be remembered when it’s time to hand out the statuettes.
While I thought there could have been more courtroom drama in “North Country,” it is still an evocative piece, full of interest and sadness and resulting in more than a little happiness that things mostly don’t have to be that way anymore — or at least that there’s now some recourse when they do. Though the film does seem crafted with award season in mind — a bit too willing to turn its work-a-day subjects into the heroes and villains of Greek drama and let the swelling music swell — it is a heart-wrenching piece, one that should give even the most hard-bitten fan of pregnant-’n’-barefoot a bit of pause.
— By David Koon