Monday, October 24, 2005

North Country

I really hate the tagline of North Country. "All she wanted to do was make a living. Instead she made history." It's terrible and doesn't at all capture what North Country is. Well, I suppose on one hand it does because that ultimately is the storyline of the movie but it's a tagline that makes me want to run away rather than buy a ticket. But enough about that.

North Country is based on actual events at the Eveleth Mines in Minnesota's Iron Range. Women were first allowed into the mines in the late 1970's and the stories that North Country deals with occurred all throughout the 80's and into the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit in the early 1990's. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) spoke with some of the women miners and had one, Lynn Sterle as an advisor for the film.

Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a fictionalized character who comes to work at the Pearson Taconite mine where her father works and where her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) works driving truck. Josey is trying to raise her two children after leaving her husband and the mine will pay six times what she was making elsewhere. Glory tells her that Josey is going to have to deal with taunts and crude behavior and that the men do not want them at the mine. She believes, but she doesn't know. From the first moment she steps foot into the mine it becomes clear just how little they are wanted. The HR representative tells the new women that he doesn't want them there and if it wasn't for the Supreme Court, he wouldn't have hired them. But he'll give them a tour anyway and show them what the work is. The other workers call them crude names and Glory warns Josey that she may find degrading things in their lunch pails. Names are written on walls and lewd drawings are made. In general, the women are not made to feel welcome even though they are also members of the same union with the same rights as the men. But this is a boy's club and women are not welcome.

Josey complains to HR and he tells her that nothing will happen. She continues to complain about the behavior and things get worse. Much worse. They are threatened, attacked, degraded and I can only believe that what is shown in the movie is only scratching the surface as to what really went on in the mine. Finally Josey has had enough and finds a lawyer (Woody Harrelson) and decides to sue. But even the women are not supportive.

North Country mixes Josey's experience at the mine with footage from the lawsuit (preliminary hearings is my guess as it wasn't yet class action) and also makes the connection with Josey's story with the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings that were going on at the same time.

This is a moving film that deals with an incredibly ugly subject matter. One would think that by the 1990's such behavior would not occur and that it wouldn't be put up with, but it did. The movie itself is well acted by Theron and the supporting cast. In particular the other women miners do a great job in showing toughness in the face of such degradation and why they would not want to speak up and how they can deal with the harassment.

Well made, well acted. I don't feel that North Country was especially manipulative. All film is manipulative and has a viewpoint and an agenda. The questions are: does the movie work? Is it any good? Does it feel true? Yes, to all. North Country is not a feel good movie by any measure and it isn't one that I can really say I enjoyed, but I enjoy any good movie and in that sense I did.

Some may feel that this is nothing more than Oscar bait with the poor woman overcoming degradation and rising to accomplish something big, and that it is touching the buttons that need to be touched to get awards...but that does not lessen the fact that the movie is rather good and that Theron will deserve whatever nominations she receives or awards she wins. She does an excellent job as does Niki Caro, Frances McDormand and the other actors. The movie only hits one note that felt like too much (what happened to Glory), but even that isn't a major point against it. Just something that felt off. It's the only thing that comes to mind.


Anonymous said...

Hi Joe Sherry
I live in Eveleth, MN, where this movie is about and where much of it is filmed. I haven't seen it yet. Just wondering if the thing you mentioned about the character "Glory" had to do with her health. I'm a teacher and one of my student's grandmas was one of the original women to file the lawsuit. In real life, this woman had a very bad degenerative terminal illness. She really did die just shortly before the settlement; she had 5 kids who received no part of the settlement.
Thanks for the review.

Joe said...

Hi Amy,

The issue with Glory was a degenerative terminal health issue, yes. That part really is true? I wasn't sure how I should phrase it in the review because it came as quite a shock to me when it was revealed but also because I don't want to say that I hope there was a real life incident that Niki Caro based Glory's illness on.

I don't wish that on anyone, and it is terrible that there was a real life incident, but as far as connecting reality to the movie I'm glad that the screenwriter and Niki Caro didn't make that up because it would be too much on top of everything else. Does that make any sense? For the movie I'm glad there was a correlating incident, but I feel terrible that there was.

Thanks for writing! That clears up something that bugged me about the movie.