New Zealand woman director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) makes efficient use of Bob Dylan songs to punctuate a deeply personal story from the harsh terrain of the singer’s Northern Minnesota origins. Based on the book Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, the film traverses lofty dramatic heights scaled in poignant films like Norma Rae and Silkwood with similarly emotionally affecting results.
Charlize Theron gives an excellently modulated performance as Josey Aimes, a mother who quits her abusive husband to rebuild a modest life working alongside her father (Richard Jenkins) in a local iron mine where she, along with several other female miners, suffers unmerciful physical and psychological sexual harassment. Consummate performances from an ensemble cast, including Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Sissy Spacek and Michelle Monaghan, support the thoughtful examination of crucial familial, social, and political issues.
North Country is a movie that subtly links the social injustices against women in the story to the ways in which women are still diminished in American society today. It’s a comparison that comes wafting through the human essence of the actual people that the actors represent rather than through any polemical narrative device.
When you come away from watching the film, it takes time to readjust and comprehend how much and yet how little things have changed since Josey Aimes handed the corporate world its ass at a time when the Anita Hill hearings were fresh in the public’s mind. The raw emotions of fear, anger and ridicule expressed in the film taps directly into the country’s current communal sense of foreboding about the crushing political reversals that allow corporations to subtract personal freedoms with things like firing a woman for a bumper sticker she has on her car.
Josey’s attorney Bill White (flawlessly played by Woody Harrelson) warns his client of the mining company’s “nuts and sluts” defense that will paint her as one or both during the trial. The degrading term encapsulates the codified language of jurisdictional treachery that corporate lawyers use to pulverize human lives. It is also the exact brand of prejudice that Josey bravely takes on when not even her own father would stand up for her at the job where they both worked while she and other women were ruthlessly abused.
As evidence of the abuse that Josey suffered at the hands of one particular man becomes clear during the film’s climatic trial, we see how even just witnessing an abusive event can polarize people to act out aggression against victims as a way of disguising their own fear. It’s a situation that suggests that this is how war is. MTW