Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron, above, star in North Country, the movie adaptation of Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Ganslers book, Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law.
When the message is too loud for the medium
By Steven Snyder
Some movies hit the audience over the head with their message. North Country feels more like incessant bludgeoning.
This incredible, true-to-life tale of sexual harassment is set in northern Minnesota, more specifically the dank and dirty mining towns that pepper the states rural northern frontier. To understand the power of this story, you must first understand that mines in these towns do not only provide jobs to local residents they form the lifeblood of this closed society, spreading their influence, both economic and social, to every tavern and dinner table.
When Josey (Charlize Theron), a single mother looking for work, is hired at a local mine that has just opened its doors to women, she isnt seen as a proactive single mom but rather as a silly girl who shouldnt be doing mens work, or worse, stealing a job from one of the towns men.
As one might expect in such a hostile environment, these women are not exactly welcomed as co-workers. They are intruders in a mans world, verbally and, in some cases, physically assaulted at work, while their bosses and neighbors look the other way. Even Joseys mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), takes the side of her father (Richard Jenkins) who also works in the mines and considers Josey an embarrassment.
North Country has two chapters, namely despair and revolt, as Josey comes to realize that the only way to overcome this sexism is to fight it head on. She hires Bill (Woody Harrelson), a New York lawyer who has returned home and takes the case because he knows it will be the first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment.
Based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Ganslers book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, there are moments that work in this film, as when the agony of a woman deserted by her own familyeven her son, when he hears the gossip at schoolcuts close to the bone. But far too often, as Josey suffers and fights back, the spirit of this real-life quest is simplified and stripped bare.
Yes, the story of Josey, or Lois Jensen in real life, is a shocking and important one. Her case confronted corporate sexual harassment and scored a major victory for women across the country. It is presented in North Country, though, as a one-dimensional horror story that becomes less affecting the more it focuses on the politics surrounding the case and this working-class town, and less on Josey herself.
The actors do their best to avoid this fate. Theron, as Josey, is a scared and sobbing mess, undeniably moving as she tries to bravely endure the perpetual injustices. Spacek, torn between her town, her husband, and her daughter, internalizes her anguish. Jenkins, in hindsight, may be the best of the bunch, perfectly capturing that guarded, Midwest tendency to observe things quietly until its time to speak up.
But sadly, as the film repeatedly cuts to clips of the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearingsanother sexual harassment case paralleling Joseys storyNorth Country never becomes the important social document it so clearly strives to be. In numerous scenes, the film pauses to show the face of Anita Hill, who actually did appear on the televisions of northern Minnesota during Lois Jensens real-life case. It is a clear parallel to Joseys public and personal turmoil, but unfortunately director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) never quite succeeds in linking these two famous cases.
Early on the comparison between Hill, who is questioned in front of Congress while defending her side of the story, and Josey, who is shunned both at work and at home, is apt. But the film loses its sense of the individual as Josey becomes all but an afterthought in a movie more interested in exaggerating the atrocities that befall her than developing her own character.
It is exploitive in a sadistic way, mercilessly chipping away at Joseys dignity and self-respect. Even the films climax, in a rather cynical turn, is taken out of Joseys hands as triumph is once again left to the actions of a man.
This is not to claim that North Country exhibits its own shades of sexism, though it seems odd that the emotional payoff has nothing at all to do with Josey. It is simply further evidence that the film has jumped the rails in its search of that big, Oscar moment, and forgotten in the end who it was supposed to be about in the first place.