"North Country": A steely resolve to fight for a better life
Seattle Times movie critic
Niki Caro's uneven but affecting "North Country," in its early scenes, captures a palpable sense of dread: The camera lingers on the vast, white spaces of northern Minnesota, with its harsh lines and foreboding chill. There's nothing inviting about this landscape, just as there's nothing welcoming about the iron mine where Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a single mother newly returned to her hometown, gets a new job. She's one of very few women to work there, and the men make no secret of their contempt for these interlopers. "Gotta get a gator skin on," says Josey's friend Glory (Frances McDormand).
But Josey, who's just fled an abusive marriage, won't silently tolerate humiliation. She's taken this job to raise herself in the world — earning a previously unthinkable salary — and she won't give it up easily. Theron's Josey has a flat voice and a tough, no-nonsense expression that cracks only a few times, tellingly. After she gets the job, she takes her children out for a meal in a no-frills diner. "It's our first time in a nice restaurant," she tells them, and her voice trembles just a bit: She's glimpsing a different life for her family, and she'll walk through hell to get it.
And hell is what that workplace becomes for Josey, as comments and innuendo escalate into physical violence and a climate of fear. Except for the laconic Glory, Josey stands alone: The other female employees, an appealing group of raunchy women with raucous laughs (look among them for former Seattleite Jillian Armenante), don't want to make trouble. When Josey and her lawyer (Woody Harrelson) form a class-action lawsuit for sexual harassment — the nation's first — no one else will join her.
Caro, whose last film was the beautiful coming-of-age tale "Whale Rider," falters a bit in her first big-studio outing. "North Country" is too often melodramatic, with a major character's illness, a few too many last-minute transformations (including a courtroom scene that we've seen before), and a soundtrack filled with inspirational-movie clichés.
But she's got a good story to tell (based, loosely, on a real-life case), and a marvelous cast to help her tell it. Richard Jenkins, as Josey's miner father, finds a gentleness buried deep within his character; likewise Sissy Spacek, as Josey's mother, gives her role unexpected steel. McDormand brings her welcome dryness to a role that could easily have become syrupy.
And Theron proves that all the accolades she received for "Monster" weren't a fluke. She's a character actress hiding behind movie-star cheekbones, and here she movingly creates a brave, smart woman who transforms fear into action — and transforms her life.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company