When we first see the protagonist of North Country, a working-class heroine portrayed by a deglamorized Charlize Theron, she's sporting a black eye and a slight limp, the results of an encounter with her abusive husband. We soon learn that Josey Aimes is only now beginning to take her lumps. Desperate to support two kids and declare a measure of independence, Josey leaves her husband and signs on for a job in a northern Minnesota iron mine, where her father already works. She might as well have descended into the ninth circle of hell: Mercilessly hazed and harassed by resentful male co-workers, the embattled female miners are ordered by their foreman to "work hard, keep your mouth shut and take it like a man." Apparently, this advice extends to remaining silent when the Neanderthals grope you, put a dildo in your lunch pail, scrawl obscenities in excrement on the locker-room wall or try to rape you on a pile of taconite. For Josey, the pay is liberating. At the mine, she earns six times what she made as a hairdresser's assistant. But the accompanying surcharge is gruesome: While management and union leaders look the other way, she is relentlessly terrorized.
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Shopping for drama? Josey decides to fight back. Like Norma Rae, Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, this is the uplifting tale of a lone woman standing against Power, presented with a minimum of Hollywood gloss.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) tends here and there toward manipulation and heavy-handedness -- in places, North Country has all the subtlety of a rock crusher -- but she has the truth on her side. Based on a book called Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, the film has been updated from the early '80s to the early '90s (the original lawsuit, Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, was decided in 1984), and the heroine has been fictionalized. But the fundamentals of the conflict remain the same: Enraged by a 1974 federal consent decree that opened scarce mining jobs to women, the hard-bitten, machismo-trapped men at Eveleth struck back with the fury of animals -- not all of them, but enough to make life miserable and dangerous for the unwelcome "bitches" in their midst. As screenwriter Michael Seitzman would have it, most of North Country's action takes place in 1991, the company for which Josey Aimes works is called Pearson Taconite and Steel, and she takes inspiration from Anita Hill, testifying against Clarence Thomas on television. But like Lois Jenson, the original plaintiff in the case against Eveleth, Theron's Josey has put up with vicious gossip and a domestic nightmare even before she gets to the open pit, and that helps give her the strength to resist injustice. Framed -- a bit too neatly, some might say -- by courtroom testimony, Theron's portrait of a woman wronged has both great sensitivity and tremendous moral force. "Wear my shoes," Josey replies to a lawyer's insinuating question. "Tell me tough."
After winning an Academy Award for her harrowing performance as a haggard, physically repellent serial killer in Monster, Theron might have chosen this time around to take refuge in a sleeker role, if not in her great beauty itself. Instead, the character we encounter in North Country seems perfectly at home in the hard, icy wasteland of the Mesabi Iron Range, perfectly captured by cinematographer Chris Menges. As we learn, Josey's good looks have been something of a curse since her teenage years, but she's scrappy and strong, and when we behold her in a work-scarred hard hat, face streaked with soot, there's no argument whatsoever about authenticity. When Sally Field's Norma Rae, amid the deafening clatter of the textile plant, held aloft the placard reading "Union," a classic moment in American movies was launched. When Josey finally pricks the conscience of her mostly leering, abusive fellow workers in the courtroom, we may be witnessing another. A couple of Bob Dylan anthems on the soundtrack serve to reinforce the powerful effect of her portrait.
Happily, North Country is not all social-realist grit or straight sermonizing. Not only is Theron achingly real, but the fine supporting performances here lend even more dramatic reach and human scale. Frances McDormand, who's been to Minnesota before, in Fargo, is just right as Josey's doomed friend and co-worker, Glory; young Thomas Curtis hits the mark as her defiant teenage son, Sammy; and Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek do some nice work as Josey's conflicted parents. Among the odious abusers up at the mine, Jeremy Renner stands out as Josey's former high school boyfriend, and James Cada perfectly nails the condescending executive bit in his thankless turn as the creepy mining-company president. We also find Woody Harrelson playing against type as Josey's lawyer. A former hockey star who's initially reluctant to take the case (just like Denzel Washington in Philadelphia), Harrelson's Bill White warms to the task when the force of her cause overtakes him. When he shreds a balky, lying witness, you can't help thinking of Clarence Darrow, or at least Perry Mason. But even this pales in the dazzle of Josey Aimes's righteousness. An anthem to womanhood and an ode to social justice, North Country is just right for our time, regardless of when it's set.