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North Country is a fictionalized retelling of the landmark sexual harassment case, Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co which was the first sexual harassment class action suit in the United States. In 1975, Jenson was one of the first women hired by the steel industry when they were forced to exercise affirmative action. The few women employees were subjected to horrific sexual harassment, but because they wanted to keep their jobs, at first they just took it. Eventually, in 1984, Jenson began to take legal action against the company which took 14 years to be finally resolved. In 1998, after many ups and downs, 15 women including Jenson, settled with Eveleth Mines for $3.5 million. Although her story has been fictionalized in North Country, Jenson says, "They have made a very good film. It's a story that compresses 20 years of stuff, and the characters are composites of several of us. But the sexual harassment depicted was true. They captured the emotions very well, and overall I think it's an incredibly powerful film that will be around a long time."
In North Country, Charlize Theron plays a character based on Jenson. She is a mother of two small children who leaves her abusive husband and moves back in with her parents (Sissy Spacek & Richard Jenkins) in the small town where she grew up. She applies for a job at the mine at the suggestion of her friend (Frances McDormand) who drives a truck there. Her father has worked at the local mine for 30 years and disapproves of Theron's life in general, and her decision to work at the mine in particular. Soon she is making good money but enduring, along with the few other women (Michelle Monaghan, Rusty Schwimmer, & Jillian Armenante), a difficult job made all the more difficult by the constant abuse, both verbal and physical, from their male co-workers. As Theron begins to fight back, she becomes a pariah both at work and in the town. Her only friends are McDormand and her husband (Sean Bean) and his friend, the town lawyer (Woody Harrelson). The story is all told in flashback as the sexual harassment trial takes place. Although time has been compressed and characters changed, the events in the movie are similar to those that really took place. This includes the fact the other women at the mine at first opposed Jenson's suit and testified against her. And at the trials, the women's personal lives and medical histories were made public.
I was a little leery about seeing North Country and I didn't see it until this week when I rented the DVD so that I could see it before the Oscars, since Theron is nominated for Best Actress and McDormand for Best Supporting Actress. I was worried that this kind of movie has been made a few too many times, (i.e., Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich), and I wasn't that happy with Theron's role two years ago in Monster. But setting your expectations low, really helps and I was pleasantly surprised by North Country. Theron is very good and, although she seems to be crying in almost every scene of the movie, she won me over. The rest of the cast is good too, including lots of recognizable character-actor faces. The incomparable Frances McDormand steals every scene that she is in and is a joy to watch as always. This is her 4th Oscar nomination (Mississippi Burning, Almost Famous, Fargo). She won her only Oscar for Fargo and gets to use her Minnesota accent again in North Country. Woody Harrelson (Cheers, Doc Hollywood) and Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, Patriot Games) do very good understated jobs with their roles which, for both, play against type. Sissy Spacek is good as always but isn't strained playing a small role as Theron's mother. Richard Jenkins is excellent as Theron's disapproving father who eventually "gets it." He is one of those actors who you recognize but just can't place. He usually plays fathers or law enforcement officers. He's been in nine movies in the last three years including I Heart Huckabees, The Core and Intolerable Cruelty.
North Country isn't perfect. Like I said, Theron, cries in every scene whether it's happy or sad. And the characters are mostly one- or two-dimensional, the exceptions being McDormand and Jenkins. New Zealand director, Niki Caro, has done something very different in her follow-up to Whale Rider. But it's very well done and I really cringed at the treatment of the women at the mine. In some ways it seems like ancient history even though the events depicted were only 30 years ago. But then again, we still have a long way to go. North Country is worth renting.