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7 reviews, 16 user ratings

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North Country
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by Mel Valentin

"Emotionally affecting, if occasionally manipulative, (melo)drama."
4 stars

Directed by Niki Caro ("Whale Rider") and loosely based on the events and aftermath associated with a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit decided in 1984, "North Country" follows the female empowerment formula effectively used from "Norma Rae" through "Erin Brockovich." The formula borrows elements from the “social problem” films prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s, using a topical, rights-based issue, adding a liberal or progressive perspective, and centering the storyline on a determined, disadvantaged female character who, against the odds, manages to create change for herself and others like her. "North Country" tackles institutionalized gender discrimination. Despite the formula, Caro and her screenwriter, Michael Seitzman, manage to create an affecting, absorbing film, in no small part due to Caro’s skillful direction with actors, pacing, and the note-perfect performances from an equally skilled cast.

Northern Minnesota, 1989. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), mother of two, newly separated (and desperate), moves back home with her parents, Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek). Her son, Sammy (Thomas Curtis), a typically rebellious teenager, resists the move. Josey's daughter, Karen (Elle Peterson) accepts the move more easily. At the suggestion of an old acquaintance, Glory (Frances McDormand), Josey applies for (and gets) work at the local mine, much to the displeasure of her father, a lifelong miner. The other women at the mine include Big Betty (Rusty Schwimmer), Peg (Jillian Armenante), and Sherry (Michelle Monaghan). Mine work promises a healthy salary, sufficient to support her children comfortably (it even allows Josey to buy her first house).

Mine work, however, comes at a steep price. Due to a variety of factors (e.g., mine work as a predominantly male preserve, women perceived as outsiders and transgressors, taking jobs from other men, and the typical behavior of men in large, insular groups), the women at the mine are subjected to humiliating treatment. They're called vulgar names, grabbed, fondled, and otherwise mistreated. Despite being told to accept the treatment or respond in kind, Josey objects, first seeking help from her immediate supervisor, Arlen Pavich (Xander Berkeley), and then escalating her complaints to the CEO of the mining company, Don Pearson (James Cada), to no avail.

Josey's active stance against the mistreatment leads to expected and unexpected consequences. Josey's family, especially her son, face ostracism from other members of the community. Her father, long an opponent of women working in the mine, shuns her. Her mother's attitudes reflect an unquestioning acceptance of social and cultural norms (i.e., the place of women in society). Even her female co-workers fail to support her actions. Now marked as a threat, Josey faces increasing harassment, with an old high school friend, Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner) leading the way humiliating Josey at every opportunity. Josey, in short, has the full force of a patriarchical institution, along with the social and cultural mores that support it, lined up against her.

Josey, finally pushed to the breaking point, seeks legal redress. Enter Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a Minnesota native newly returned from New York City (he left an ex-wife and a legal career there). Bill is something of a local hockey legend, but in need of a new direction or purpose in his life. Not surprisingly, Josey's case promises to shake him from his mid-life crisis (that and a certain attraction to Josey). North Country then turns on Josey's case and whether she can obtain support from the other female miners, including Glory. Glory, however, is undergoing a crisis of her own, but at least she has a nurturing life partner to help, Kyle (Sean Bean).

The trial turns on whether Josey can obtain support of her case from her family, her peers at the mining company, and local community, and on a dramatic revelation that leads to a major reversal, soul-searching, and possibly, reconciliation. It's here that North Country slips dangerously close to melodrama, shifting the focus away from Josey's case against the mining company to her personal life (and unresolved issues and conflicts). The dramatic revelation also makes for uncomfortable, awkwardly written and delivered dialogue scenes between several characters, each of them forced to face, accept or reject newfound knowledge about each other (and themselves). The dramatic revelation also serves to explain one character's violent behavior (as a cover-up for past inaction and his own victimization) and, more cynically, to give the actors additional emotion-centered scenes likely to be remembered at next spring at award ceremonies.

In addition to the drawbacks associated with the late-film revelation, North Country suffers from two other major problems. First, North Country is hampered by predictability. That predictably is partly due to the generic, female empowerment formula mentioned above and partly due to North Country's "safe" subject matter, one that reflects a social and cultural shift that's resulted from changes in the law and in employment practices over the last twenty-thirty years (and that few, except those on the hard right of the political spectrum, would disagree with directly) as opposed to a current "hot-button" issue. Second, the Glory subplot adds little to the major storyline on its own, even though it obviously gives Frances McDormand an opportunity to act (and emote) under significant limitations. Some viewers will find the admittedly limited male characters problematic (they range from the thuggish to the nurturing, with few shades in between). On a minor, if distracting note, North Country's Minnesota setting means the actors adopted local accents for their roles (cf., Fargo). Due to their variability, the accents becomes more distracting than obviously intended.

Flaws aside, "North Country" is still a meticulously crafted, occasionally moving film, thanks in large part to the emotionally authentic performances from a stellar cast and Niki Caro's measured direction of Michael Seitzman's screenplay that only slips into sentimental manipulation in the third act (after the dramatic courtroom revelation). Caro obviously has a natural affinity for female characters struggling with and against patriarchical norms (as "Whale Rider" proved in 2003). Credit should also go to cinematographer Chris Menges (an Oscar winner for "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields"). Not surprisingly, given the subject matter and the autumn setting, Menges employs a cool, muted palette of browns and grays. Menges manages to craft impressive images and photography from the mine, the refinery, the surrounding, hollowed-out environment, and the characters at work (or at play).

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12822&reviewer=402
originally posted: 10/20/05 20:25:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2005 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/02/10 MP Bartley Powerful in parts, but shamelessly and grubbily obvious. 3 stars
8/28/08 Shaun Wallner Interesting storyline. 4 stars
4/25/07 nancie belianne i enjoyed this film dispite some disturbing scenes. 3 stars
12/13/06 galaxy its a nice movie... 4 stars
11/06/06 Alexis Brilliant acting, kudos to Frances McDormand, fairly watered down for a 'true story' 4 stars
6/30/06 Phil M. Aficionado Stick to the book or make a documentary. Why waste good acting this kind of thing? 3 stars
2/22/06 ES Sad, didn't buy Woody as the lawyer but a worth while watch 4 stars
12/17/05 ownerofdajoint Treron is great as the victim of our corporate slavemasters total domination 5 stars
11/06/05 Rocha Ana This movie made me feel mad. 4 stars
11/06/05 Nancy Stanina Contrary to the reviews views, these things did happen and are still happening some places 5 stars
10/31/05 Jeff Unbelievable film, Inspiring, One of the best ever 5 stars
10/26/05 Michael Kondo A very good and moving movie, a must see 5 stars
10/22/05 baseball-nut This is a very good flick ... a must buy movie if you liked Norma Rae! 5 stars
9/28/05 E. Northam An accurate & ugly indictment of the plight of sexually harrassed women at a mining site. 4 stars
9/13/05 Matt Parker A Hollywood picture with the naturalistic, emotional signature of Niki Caro... 5 stars
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  21-Oct-2005 (R)
  DVD: 21-Feb-2006

  03-Feb-2006 (15)

  02-Feb-2006 (MA)

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