“North Country” was “inspired by a true story,” but instead of sticking to the undeniably moving facts of the sexual harassment suit filed by female mineworkers, this movie veers off into distracting and soapy subplots. It doesn’t trust its story, it doesn’t trust its characters, and it doesn’t trust its audience.
It’s an attempt to follow in a long and distinguished series of Oscar-bait “true” stories turned into movies named after their female leads (Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae). But there’s a reason this one changes the names of all of the characters and the mining company. It’s an “inspired by,” which means that it makes no attempt to be accurate. The result, despite sincere performances, just feels synthetic.
In this version, it’s Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron) who filed a lawsuit against the mining company that failed to protect the female employees from abuse, despite verbal and physical assaults, despite intimidation and threat of retaliation, despite the unwillingness of even one other person, male or female, to stand beside her. And in this version, the lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), is a former local hockey star who agrees to represent her only so he can enhance his reputation by making new law: the first ever class action sexual harassment claim. The others may not care or may be too scared to tell the truth, but Josie’s complaint was on behalf of all of them, alleging a consistent and management-approved policy of harassment and abuse.
This movie attacks the bad guy bosses for its “nuts and sluts” defense to charges of sexual harassment because it brought the main character’s sexual history into the courtroom. Then it does the same thing, dragging Josie’s past into evidence and making the story about her behavior as a teenager and her struggle for the respect of her father and her son, both handled awkwardly and unconvincingly. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) has a lot of lingering close-ups of Charlize Theron’s face (a temptation hard to resist, I admit), and dilutes the power of her story with too many distractions and too-quick turn-arounds. The women of the mine deserved better from their managers and they deserve better from this movie.
Parents should know that this movie depicts the crudest and most hostile forms of sexual harassment in very explicit terms. A character is battered by her domestic partner. Characters use very strong language and there are explicit sexual references and situations, including rape. Characters drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for the women to insist on better treatment from the men in the mine. When is it time to “cowboy up” and when is it time to fight? They should talk about Kyle’s comment that “It takes a lot of work to hate someone. You really want to put in that kind of time?” Familiss should make sure that everyone understands that sexual harassment is not about flirting or leading anyone on and has no relationship to the sexual history of the victims. It is about power and humiliation and control. Families might also like to look at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines and one of the judge’s decisions in the case that inspired this movie, which begins, “This case has a long, tortured, and unfortunate history,” and goes on to conclude that, “It should be obvious that the callous pattern and practice of sexual harassment engaged in by Eveleth Mines inevitably destroyed the self-esteem of the working women exposed to it. The emotional harm, brought about by this record of human indecency, sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit of each plaintiff. The humiliation and degradation suffered by these women is irreparable. Although money damage cannot make these women whole or even begin to repair the injury done, it can serve to set a precedent that in the environment of the working place such hostility will not be tolerated.”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other fact-based stories about strong women who stood up for their rights, including Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance in Norma Rae, Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich, Meryl Streep in Silkwood, and Sissy Spacek (who plays Josie’s mother in this film) in Marie, with Fred Thompson in his first film role, playing himself.