The new film North Country gives superb dramatic life to a fictionalized version of the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the U.S.
By Betsy Sherman
Niki Caro’s last movie on female empowerment, Whale Rider, was about an exotic culture and centered on an irresistible girl with royal blood in her veins. Caro’s new film on the same subject, North Country, takes place in a similarly insular community, but there’s little to romanticize about its setting or about what happens there. Its story is ugly but true. Its heroine is an ordinary person, but one who proves to be exceptionally courageous.
A superb cast, under Caro’s assured directorial hand, gives life to this fictionalized version of events described in the book Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. The book is about the first class-action sexual harassment suit in the U.S., Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines. The movie necessarily gives a compacted version of what took place when women began to work blue-collar jobs in the iron mines of northern Minnesota. Charlize Theron gives a fine lead performance as Josey Aimes, whose motivation for using the legal system to fight back against abuse comes from a complex series of experiences revealed over the course of the film. Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman distill the various conflicts — those within the working-class community, and between the community and the big-city management — into an exploration of what divides people and what can unite them.
North Country will be compared to Norma Rae, which fits, but not only because it deals with labor issues. Both Norma Rae and Josey are small town gals who are stigmatized because they’ve had children out of wedlock. The structure of North Country is tiered, cutting between a courtroom drama and the events leading up to the case, as well as including flashbacks of Josey’s teen years. We’ve scarcely met Josey before we see her on the witness stand having her morals impugned by a slick attorney. We have to wonder: what led this woman to put herself in this awful position?
The drama proper begins in 1989, with Josey gathering her kids and belongings into her car, to escape her abusive husband. Her parents’ home in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range is not an unequivocal refuge. Her father (Richard Jenkins of “Six Feet Under”) sees Josey’s bruised face and says, “So, he catch you with another man?” Mother (Sissy Spacek) is more tactful, but she too urges Josey to patch things up with her man. Clearly, Josey’s got to get another roof over her kids’ heads. When her old friend Glory (Frances McDormand) reveals she has a lucrative job driving a truck at the iron mine where Josey’s dad is a foreman, Josey decides to take advantage of the new hiring policy. It beats being a shampoo girl.
The work is dirty, exhausting, and potentially dangerous. Josey is assigned to clean soot from grinding machines in an area called the “Powder Room.” Her supervisor is Bobby Sharp, a former classmate who harbors a mix of very strong feelings about Josey. The new female workers are subjected to a barrage of sexually oriented affronts — obscene remarks and graffiti, groping, and stunts like putting a dildo in a woman’s lunchbox. It’s not just that the guys are angry about women invading their turf and possibly taking jobs away from men. The hostility is more pervasive, and institutionalized. Josey must have a gynecological exam before she’s hired, to confirm that she’s not pregnant. On her first day of work, her boss Arlen quips that the doctor said she looks good under those clothes. Josey is told to get a sense of humor, and even Glory says she’s got to “get gator skin.”
North Country is blunt about the anatomy factor. Glory, as the workers’ union rep, has to pick her battles when it comes to women’s problems. She presses to have more portable toilets available, telling the scoffers, as if they needed a reminder, “You can pull it out, we have to take down our overalls.” In the locker rooms, bodily fluids are used as a weapon to put women in their place. The threat of rape as a corrective against women who are too bold is always in the air. Josey knows what people are capable of; she holds a terrible secret that has become part of her very fiber. Still, she forges ahead in the name of common sense: “The union says to respect fellow members,” she offers, without much response.
There’s a goddess on earth, and her name is Anita Hill. North Country flubs the chronology, since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing wasn’t until late 1991, but Hill’s presence on TV sets, speaking out against sexual harassment, is heartening to Josey. Cue the rescuer lawyer character, who isn’t an outsider, but a native “ranger.” Bill White (nicely played by Woody Harrelson) has returned to the town where he was a star hockey player, after having practiced law in New York and gone through a nasty divorce. He warns Josey that women accusers get branded as “nuts” or “sluts,” but Hill’s courage inspires him as well (though it’s puzzling how the class-action trial gets started before the other women agree to fight alongside Josey). In the razzle-dazzle finale, it takes someone from Mars — Bill, using insider hockey metaphors — to crack the harassers’ solidarity.
There’s a passel of great performances in North Country, from Theron on down. The two most forceful are McDormand as the flinty, good-hearted Glory and Jenkins as Hank Aimes, whose resistance bursts like a dam once he’s able to feel his daughter’s pain. Spacek’s Alice Aimes is a woman sandblasted by submissiveness yet eventually finds her power and wields it. Sean Bean projects quiet strength as Glory’s husband Kyle, and Xander Berkeley presents the banal face of cruelty as Arlen. Thomas Curtis is affecting as Josey’s 13-year-old son Sammy, who bears the burden of the town’s wrath towards his mother. No slight to Caro, but a lovely scene between Josey and Sammy recalls North Country cinematographer Chris Menges’ sensitive scenes between adults and children in the films he’s directed (CrissCross, Second Best).
North Country features songs by Bob Dylan, who grew up in iron-mining Hibbing, Minnesota. “If you do right to me, I’ll do right to you,” he sings. That’s all Josey asks for.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.