Niki Caro’s North Country has an interesting premise. She fictionalizes a real fight against sexual harassment in a Minnesota mine during the late 1980s, when workers are fearful all their jobs will flee abroad. Usually, I appreciate fictionalization as opposed to a biopic because in the right hands, it can be freeing from having to follow a story that does not always make good film. Unfortunately, Caro’s hands aren’t that sure and despite some good performances, the film doesn’t work well. Her story follows Charlize Theron, a woman with two children in an abusive relationship. After her boyfriend beats her to begin the film, she leaves him and heads back to her home town to live with her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) who haven’t forgiven her for getting pregnant in high school, when she was raped by a teacher.
To get out from under her parents and set her life in order, she gets a job in the local mine, one of only a small group of women. No one wants them there, but in the 1980s, the federal government was forcing the issue. In case this isn’t clear enough, the Anita Hill testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings is shown in the background several times and over a much longer period of time than it actually took since the film clearly spans a year or so. The women deal with constant sexual harassment that is made worse by the company not caring and even facilitating it. Theron falls under the wing of the tough Frances McDormand and tries to deal with it. But it gets worse and worse, led by Jeremy Renner, her high school boyfriend who witnessed her rape and did nothing.
Already we have one big problem–according to this film, every single working class male is an unreconstructed sexist who will do nothing to stop sexual harassment. While there is talk of some of the guys not approving of this escalating harassing behavior that threatens rape, none of them are actually shown. The union officials will do nothing and her father is embarrassed and ashamed yet again. Because I know that many unions were in fact doing quite a lot to stop sexual harassment in the workplace during these years, it’s extremely frustrating. Even given that no doubt many rank and file workers were the ones doing this and did not want women there, the film could have shown complexity but did not.
In the second half, the film falls apart. Woody Harrelson is a famous high school hockey player who later became a lawyer in New York. But after a divorce, he’s returned and isn’t doing anything until Theron comes to him to take her sexual harassment case. McDormand gets ALS (really???, you are seriously going to pull this stunt???) and can’t work. Will she wallow in self-pity or support her friend in her dying days? I think we know. What we definitely know is that Caro is cheaply building sympathy for characters. And then at the trial, when the company is really trying her for being a slut rather than anything that went on at the plant, the film shifts from being about the sexual harassment to about the rape. We almost forget the case as she is forced to recount the rape (why would the company have the teacher come into the courtroom? This is stupid.) and then reconciles with her parents and son and then the other women finally stand up to her and the case becomes class action and they win. To say the least, the trial scenes are no Anatomy of a Murder.
Despite this, Theron and McDormand’s performances are quite strong, the film is reasonably well-constructed even as it fades in the end, and it is effective in painting a picture of this rough and tumble working class place at a time of industrial decline. The Dylan soundtrack is appropriate since he’s from the area, but kind of is a distraction, not to mention they used mostly his bad work from the 80s and early 90s.