North Country
directed by Niki Caro
(Warner, 2005)

There are lots of ways to tell real-life stories on the screen. There are documentaries, docudramas and dramas "based on a true story." Now we have a major motion picture that was "inspired by a true story," and what a story it was.

North Country is based on the Laura Leedy/Clara Bingham book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen & the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law, a title nearly as long as some books.

In the fictionalized -- make that "inspired by a true story" -- account there is no Lois Jensen, however. Instead we have a Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a mother of two who flees an abusive husband (Marcus Chait), even though it means moving back in with her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) in the northern Minnesota mining town where she grew up and which remembers her mostly as that girl who got pregnant in high school.

Despite a cool reception from Dad, who is a not-so-cool guy, Josey stays and does her best to make a home for herself and her children, 15-year-old Sammy and his younger sister, Karen.

Things take a turn for the better -- and the worse -- when Josey, a practicing beautician, finds herself beautifying her old friend Glory (Frances McDormand). Glory convinces Josey she'd be better off working in the Pearson Taconite & Steel Inc. mine, as does Glory.

And she's right -- and wrong. Josey makes a lot better money than she could as a beautician, but she and her female co-workers quickly smash up against the resistance of the male miners, including her father, who believe a man's place is in the mines and a woman's place isn't.

What follows is a no-holds-barred look at all the ways in which not-too-enlightened males can find to harass their female co-workers, starting with rude comments and come-ons and moving on to unwelcome presents in lockers and graffiti that falls far short of the standards of acceptable art. When all that fails, however, the groping graduates to all-out attacks -- the most unkind of all coming from former boyfriend and current foreman Bobby Sharp, a guy who knows the truth about Josey's dark past but wouldn't think of revealing it. It would shatter the image his town has of Josey, not to mention men and women in general.

North Country is a complex web of tales, told in an equally complex style: flashbacks -- or flash forwards, depending on your point of view -- which intercut scenes from the trial that arises from Josey's class-action suit with the events that led to it. As the film progresses, the court scenes become longer and longer and the backstory -- and the backstory to the backstory -- become shorter and shorter.

It's a challenging form of narrative, but in the capable hands of New Zealand-born director Niki Caro (Whale Rider), it works. Its biggest challenge is bringing together the stories of nearly everyone in town, including former hockey star/big city lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who eventually agrees to take Josey's case (and Josey, of course), and the aforementioned Glory, whose willingness to back Josey is limited first by her loyalty to her mining town and later by the onset of Lou Gehrig's disease.

All in all, it's a heck of a story, or at least a heck of a buildup. Because unfortunately, Caro is not quite as good at bringing her story to a satisfying conclusion as she is at documenting all the unpleasantries that brought it to the public eye in the first place.

True, with its New Zealand-born director, its South African-born star and a cast of characters talking like they'd just dropped in from Lake Woebegon, North Country has a very international flair. And no one can fault its stars: North Country received nominations for a dozen awards, including Oscars, SAGs and Golden Globes: six for best lead actress, six for best supporting actress.

But the courtroom finale, in which White continues to cross-examine Sharp despite a seemingly endless series of sustained objections and the women of the mines suddenly desert the defendants and join Josey in her suit, rising one at a time in the courtroom, almost as if to say "I am Spartacus," simply doesn't work. North Country is a long film that should have been even longer -- endowed with a climax as carefully constructed as its conflict.

Inspiring it is, but true it doesn't ring. Too bad. This is a story that needs to be told. And believed.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

20 October 2007

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