Woman of steel
Theron makes another Oscar pitch in North Country
If you thought Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning performance in Monster might have been some mere one-of-a-kind stunt, her resourceful work in North Country should put any doubts about the full extent of her acting skills more or less to rest. Her wily, unsparing performance in the lead role of this briskly effective social-protest tearjerker stands out even in the company of a small host of skillful supporting actors.
This gritty drama is a fictionalization of the landmark class action sexual-harassment suit initiated by a woman working in the Mesabi Range iron mines in Northern Minnesota. Theron plays a credibly conflicted version of that woman, and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and screenwriter Michael Seitzman have constructed an all-too-human crossfire of domestic entanglements, professional and economic barriers, and assorted blowback from patriarchy, machismo and misogyny in various combinations.
Josey Aimes (Theron) is the single mother of two, fleeing an abusive relationship and landing back with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek). Her father is still dissing her for having a child out of wedlock; the local women make a point of snubbing her as a “loose woman,” and a former boyfriend from high school (Jeremy Renner) returns as the most personally attentive of her tormentors and abusers in the workplace. As the hostile incidents escalate, a local hockey star turned lawyer (Woody Harrelson) returns to town and Josey recruits him to press the case in the courts.
Seitzman’s actor- and audience-friendly script spreads the good lines and choice moments around. Spacek brings quiet, simple strength to the moments in which she steps away from her life-long submissive acquiescence, and Jenkins brings stoic dignity and palpable dismay to the father’s belated recognitions of Josey’s true strength. Frances McDormand does a characteristically tough-and-smart job as the truck driver Glory, Josey’s main comrade among the small number of women working at the mines.
Nicely sketched secondary characters, including Josey’s adolescent son (Thomas Curtis) and Glory’s persistently compassionate male partner (Sean Bean), add considerably to the dramatic wealth in all this, but the later stages of the film suffer a bit from what might be termed overly manipulative plot twists. While the individual characterizations are credible, balanced and moving, Seitzman’s script overloads itself somewhat by adding a high school rape and a character with Lou Gehrig’s disease to the mix. And some of the courtroom shenanigans of the final act lack the credibility of the rest of the film.
Caro and cinematographer Chris Menges do excellent work with the story’s landscapes and physical settings. And the soundtrack makes plaintively effective use of several songs by that well-known Minnesota native, Bob Dylan.