Director Niki Caro and her crew have made North Country as if it’s cinema’s only chance to accurately and definitively depict the horrors of sexual harassment in the workplace. In a world where moviegoers are more often likely to fork out for the sight of things blowing up than for the unpleasant reality of women’s political hardships, Caro goes all or nothing with her picture. The result probably will stand for some time as the most important and effective movie made on this subject. Let’s face it: Who else is rushing to tell this kind of story on the big screen?
Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, who takes a job at an iron mine after splitting from her husband and finding herself the sole provider for their two children. Shortly after punching her first timecard, Josey finds herself the victim of male leering and crass remarks. The offenses to her and to other female co-workers intensify to the point that Josey quits her job and sues the mining company.
The film takes some of its story from the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. The case depicted in the movie bears a few similarities to that of the book but for the most part is a fictional account of Jenson v. Eveleth Mines. Readers of this book will find many differences between actual history and what happens in this film. In reality, the case against the mining company was drawn out over many years, with many different law firms and lawyers squaring off and an eventual finale not nearly as dramatic as the overdone closing moments of North Country.
Yes, the movie is history-inspired fiction, but many of the horrific misogynist acts it dramatizes actually occurred. This is a very graphic movie, unrelenting in its depiction of cruelty against women. Names have been changed, and many facets have been accelerated to fit within a two-hour format, but the underlying story of a woman’s triumph over an abusive employer and judicial system endures.
Theron is, once again, Oscar-worthy in the lead role. There are some very heavy moments in this film, and she handles every one of them with realistic choices. A scene where Josey must tell her son a difficult truth about her father is one of the film’s many genuine moments, sensitively written and superbly acted.
Playing a sort of composite character based on the lawyers who tried the Jenson case, Woody Harrelson does his best work in years as Bill White. Frances McDormand’s character, Glory, is loosely based on real-life plaintiff Pat Kosmach, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease before the case was completed. McDormand’s character also suffers from the disease but makes a triumphant appearance in the final courtroom scene that abruptly ends the film. Strangely, the movie depicts Glory as a holdout unwilling to join the case. In truth, Kosmach always stood beside Lois Jenson (the person on whom Theron’s character is based) and was one of the stalwarts in a case in which many women dropped out from fear, stress and pressure.
Dramatic license has been taken with the subject, resulting in a tight, moving film that stands as a tribute to those women who took a stand. It’s sad to know that the real-life protagonist of this story received relatively small compensation for the hell she was put through, and suffered many physical and mental side effects, which the film does not depict.
But North Country is often an ugly, sickening movie, as well it should be. Thankfully, it also will raise awareness on its subject. Those who find the film intriguing should pick up the book for the real story. This is a very good movie, but the actual events are mind-boggling.