U.S. Release Date: October 21, 2005
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Niki Caro
Producer: Jeff Skoll (executive), Nick Wechsler
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Jeremy Renner, Amber Heard, Michelle Monaghan
Running Time: 2 hours and 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language)

Mixed Themes Mar Theron’s Worker Drama
by Scott Holleran

Vanity vehicle North Country gives Charlize Theron a chance to huff and puff as a working stiff—unglamorous, again—and she's fine. This tiring showcase is not without value, notably performances by Sean Bean, Linda Emond and Sissy Spacek, and its scattered thoughts on sexual harassment, child psychology and human resources are interesting as disjointed pieces.

The pieces do not fit. In fact, by covering the female protagonist's labor struggle in sexual shame, the script invokes a familiar refrain of woman as victim. Unable to convince based on the facts in evidence—the legal tale is loosely based on one of those arbitrary class action lawsuits—North Country cops out with a predictable back story that reduces good performances and unformed themes to a Lifetime movie.

Rosy-cheeked Theron, halfway between Monster grit and her luminous Cider House Rules beauty, returns to her character's repressed, Germanic Minnesota hometown after leaving a brute who beat her. She takes the kids, who include a hockey player son (Thomas Curtis) and a daughter (the girl is all but abandoned by the script).

Populating the iron mining town is an assortment of grimy girls and grunts with names like Glory, Bobby and Big Betty. Theron, making the transformation to independent life, runs into Glory (Frances McDormand) at the beauty shop and, soon, she's clocking in at the iron mine, where a handful of butch women endure the type of antics common to male-dominated environments. It gets ugly with pretty Theron on the premises, not that these swine need a reason. Her excuse? The pay is top dollar.

Maybe so, but, as a lone struggle for a better life, North Country is awfully frosty. While Theron sweats and swaggers like the rest of the sisters, with most, though not all, men playing cruel pranks and making lewd comments and gestures, Theron's working mom never gets under one's skin as a real person.

It was a mistake not to clearly dramatize what she actually does for a living. She sweeps and cleans but there is no sense of her regular job, and it's impossible to gauge why she doesn't get out of Dodge. When she drives into downtown Minneapolis to face the mining company president—another anti-business cartoon character—it is puzzling why she doesn't simply park the pickup and look for another job in another city. She certainly isn't sticking around North Country to be near Mom (Sissy Spacek, playing her In the Bedroom role to good effect) or dinosaur Dad (Richard Jenkins), and it is obvious—entirely too obvious—that something horrible happened in high school.

Theron's crusader decides to sue the company for sexual harassment, which rocks everyone's boat—Dad works at the mine, Glory's practically one of the union guys, and the women are a blustery bunch with no backbones—and provides Woody Harrelson's down and out lawyer a chance at making good. The character-driven action moves from a thinner version of Silkwood to elements of Philadelphia, The Accused and, of course, Norma Rae, and the movie buckles under the burden. Besides the inevitable revelation of what truly happened in that flashback, all the men must get what they deserve—the father, the son, the lawyer, the bully—and it takes too long, not counting a convenient deadly disease.

The exhaustive saga lumbers into movie of the week territory, enriched by a brilliant scene featuring Sean Bean as an empathetic father figure and Linda Emond as an intelligent attorney, and it ends with an unsatisfying sense that a woman can only triumph when everyone accepts that she is a victim. That's fine if she actually is a victim. But director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) never bridges the sexual harassment case with the abuse theme and, without a strong sense of Theron's work, let alone her workplace—the town's lifeblood, the mine, is held at arm's length in aerial shots and the dirtiest scenes—the lead character and the movie come off as less than three-dimensional.

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