In 2002, Niki Caro directed The Whale Rider, a touching little indie film that stole the hearts of audiences worldwide and garnered an Academy Award nomination for the then unknown Keisha Castle-Hughes. In 2005, with the backing of the Hollywood production machine, Caro brings us North Country, another film that is sure to please audiences and critics alike, and more than likely, will attract the attention of the distinguished members of the Academy again.
We've seen the story before women must overcome unfair hardships and harassment to make it in the workplace - but an elegantly simple directorial style by Caro, a smart adaptation by Michael Seitzman of a Clara Bingham book, and several strong acting performances put North Country on the short list of "must sees" for 2005.
Tired of being smacked around by her abusive husband and ready to get her life back together, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), grabs her kids and heads back to her childhood home in northern Minnesota. The only problem is that job opportunities in this stripped-bare, blue-collar wasteland are few and far between, unless you can get on at the local taconite mine. The mine is a treacherous place to work for a woman, not only due to its built in environmental hazards, but also because the predominantly male workforce doesn't take kindly to women taking their precious jobs. They'll resort to all manners of verbal abuse, pranks and harassment to make the women feel unwelcome.
Count Josey's father (Richard Jenkins) among those miners who don't think women belong there. He's a 30-year veteran of the pits, and doesn't take kindly to her perceived intrusion on his territory. When she announces her new job at the mine, it quickly becomes evident that her battles will begin on the home front. Her father sees her new job as a personal affront, and her mother (Sissy Spacek) voices her misgivings with a hushed defiance. But as tough as it is for Josey at home, it'll be nothing compared to what she'll face on the job. It's difficult to imagine that almost all of the acts perpetrated against the female workers are pulled from the headlines of the actual events that inspired this movie. As bad as you can imagine, they're worse. Think Norma Rae, Silkwood and Thelma & Louise on steroids.
North Country is a mesmerizing film that stimulates nearly every human emotional touch point. It's beautiful and heartwarming at times, but disgusting and repulsive at others. There's an ironic beauty in the barren landscape of smoke stacks that belch soot and cinders into the cold northern air. But its ethereal beauty is countered by the haunting acts that take place deep in the pits of the mine. Many directors might have found themselves tempted to hammer us with a message of men are evil and women are victims. But although that is a strong message of the film, to overly emphasize this aspect would be reaching for low hanging fruit, and Caro is better than that. She spends equal time focusing on the enrichment of characters, the cultural environment (including references to the Anita Hill hearings), and the imposing nature of the mine itself. Somehow she manages to shift the villainy of this horrid workplace away from the humans who work there and place it on the irony of what the mine represents a source of livelihood that nobody likes. Although the mine is a grimy, greasy, clanking industrial creature that eats people up and spits them out, it represents a way of life for people who live around it.
The acting performances in North Country are Oscar caliber - most notably, that of Theron. Don't be fooled into thinking she's trying to extend her Aileen Wornous trashy slovenliness here. As Josey, she's a hard-working, courageous sort, with the drive to overcome her obstacles. She repulsed us in Monster with her brash, self-destructive nature; in North Country we're drawn by her courage and willingness to fight the big fight.
The film comes up a bit short in a couple of critical areas, but not enough to diminish its effectiveness. A climactic Union meeting and a key courtroom scene fall flat and feel slightly contrived. But all in all, North Country is an inspirational crowd-pleaser that will have you clapping with a redemptive satisfaction.
Screen formats: Widescreen Anamorphic 1.85:1
Subtitles: English; French; Spanish; Closed Captioned
Language and Sound: English: Dolby Digital 5.1
Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.
o Stories From the North Country -16-minute documentary that highlights the actual events that inspired the film.
* Deleted Scenes - 9 scenes that didn't make the final cut.
* Trailer - Original theatrical trailer for North Country.
Number of discs: - 1 - Keepcase Packaging.
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