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Overall Rating

Awesome: 10.34%
Worth A Look: 43.1%
Just Average46.55%
Pretty Crappy: 0%
Sucks: 0%

7 reviews, 16 user ratings

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North Country
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by Peter Sobczynski

"What about a law against harassing the audience?"
3 stars

One of the great things about the new docudrama “Good Night, and Good Luck” is the way that it treats potentially volatile material in a quiet and restrained way–it trusts that potential viewers will be intelligent enough to grasp the points it is trying to make without resorting to underlining them in each and every scene. It is this sense of restraint that is sorely lacking in “North Country,” a well-intentioned but ultimately misconceived film that takes another serious true-life subject–the horrifying conditions that a group of women miners were subjected to at work that led to a landmark sexual harassment class-action lawsuit–and sledgehammers viewers for two hours to such a degree that most will feel as harassed as any of the characters in the film.

The film stars Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes and begins as she flees an abusive relationship (and there is the sense that it isn’t the first one) with her two kids–sullen teen Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and young daughter Karen (Elle Peterson)–and moves back in with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek) in the Minnesota mining town where she grew up. While searching for a decent-paying job that will get her out of her parents house–important since her father still bitterly resents her for having had Sammy as a teen (when he sees the bruises on her face when she comes home, his only question is “Did he catch you with another man?”)–she runs into old friend Glory (Frances McDormand, getting a chance to reuse her “Fargo” dialect) who tells her that the local taconite mine (where Josey’s dad has worked for decades) has begun hiring women. Granted, she warns Josey, some of the men aren’t too thrilled with having women in those jobs but if she can handle that, it pays a lot better than anything else she is likely to find.

Josey takes the job and from the moment she arrives, she finds an incredibly hostile environment for the female workers–her first day alone finds her encountering both a creepy gynecological exam and a rubber sex toy in someone’s lunch box–and to make matters worse, a creepy high-school associate (Jeremy Renner) is one of her supervisors and is more than eager to resume their previous relationship and more than willing to make her life hell if she refuses. When her initial complaints fall on deaf ears, Josey decides to take the approach favored by her co-workers and quietly stick it out. However, when things finally begin to go too far and her complaints to the mine owners result in her being asked for her resignation, she, inspired by the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, decides to hire local lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) and sue the mine owners for sexual harassment. To make sure that the suit is taken seriously, Bill suggests making it a class-action suit, meaning that Josey will have to find at least two other women willing to overcome the potential reprisals in order to testify as to the mine conditions.

This is a good and noble idea for a story but the central problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in the strength of its own material. Instead, Michael Seitzman’s screenplay decides to ignore subtlety and goes for a more broad approach in every scene. With the exception of maybe one guy–who is, of course, too shy and nerdy to do anything on his own–every man in the mine is a slavering, slack-jawed ogre (imagine a mine filled with the hillbillies from “Deliverance”) who is constantly jeering, hooting, drooling and grabbing his crotch, even during union meetings. Now this may be how Josey perceives the daily atmosphere at the mine but it is presented here as an objective fact. This lack of subtlety extends to the scenes of actual harassment as well. Some of the more subtle moments–such as that gynecological exam and some of the off-hand looks of the people standing by as the harassment goes on–are creepy and disturbing but most of them are so far beyond the pale–especially when compressed into a two-hour time frame that they eventually begin to lose their impact and when the final act that inspires Josey to pursue her suit occurs, it feels less like a life-changing moment and more like a convenient plot development.

Even the stuff not dealing specifically with sexual harassment is deployed in a ham-fisted manner. In a decision that adds nothing to the film, “North Country” is told mostly in flashback with the courtroom case as a framework. Early on, we learn that the mine has cleverly hired a female lawyer to represent them in court. A smart movie–one that trusted the intelligence of the audience–would have made no specific mention of that choice and allowed its significance to dawn on viewers for themselves. Instead, we are treated to a jarring scene–especially since practically the entire film has been told through Josey’s eyes to this point–in which the mine owner flat-out tells the lawyer that she was hired not because she was the best defense attorney around but because she was the best female attorney they could find. Later, during the climax, the film is so desperate to provoke any kind of reaction that it actually crams not one, not two but three of the hoariest courtroom cliches into the mix and the result is less inspiring than it is ridiculous–it almost plays like one of those Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker genre parodies.

This lack of subtlety is especially surprising since “North Country” was directed by Niki Caro, the New Zealand filmmaker who made an splash a couple of years ago with her enormously appealing film “Whale Rider.” Like “North Country,” that earlier film also dealt with issues of gender politics and masculine fears of being usurped by women merely searching for equal treatment. The difference is that in that film, which she also wrote, she dealt with the subject in a subtle and engaging manner that showed a measure of respect for both the subject and the audience. Here, that delicate touch has disappeared and the results are as coarse and unsubtle as the typical made-for-Lifetime fodder. To be fair, she does do some good things here–she has a good eye for atmosphere in the way that she depicts the simultaneously expansive and confined world of the mine –and gets good performances from Theron (who proves that she doesn’t need a ton of ugly makeup to pull off a convincing dramatic turn) and Jenkins (whose work as Josey’s father is probably the best thing in the film).

“North Country” has its heart in the right place and it seems to have been intended to be something more than just a bit of Oscar bait for all involved. The problem is that it is so determined to get you to share its point-of-view about the evils of sexual harassment (views that are most likely already going to be shared by most people who will be attending it) that it winds up alienating you with its relentlessly hectoring tone to the point where you can no longer bring yourself to care about it. A film like “North Country” should leave its viewers mad as hell and ready for change. Here, if they are mad as hell at anyone, it is with the filmmakers for treating them like children who need to have everything spelled out for them in big letters.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12822&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/21/05 00:00:04
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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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