Message-movie melodramas have a long history in Hollywood. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to Silkwood and Norma Rae, the genre has proven itself effective Oscar bait. Charlize Theron probably hopes so, as the upcoming Aeon Flux adaptation isn't likely to lead to a repeat of last year's Best Actress award she (deservingly) won for Monster. But all of the elements are in place in North Country: working-class character of, ahem, questionable character; acclaimed, up-and-coming director; solid supporting cast; and a script about sticking it to the Man. Or, in this case, men.
North Country is based on the story of Lois Jensen, a single mother working in a Minnesota iron mine who endured brutal sexual harassment and successfully organized the first class-action sexual-harassment suit in American history. The film is at its best when it paints the hard-drinking, claustrophobic world of northern Minnesota from the point of view of the people who make a living by tearing takonite ore from the frozen hills.
Theron, here named Josie Aimes, is one of the first women to make inroads into the male-dominated world of the mine, and the men show their displeasure at the intrusion through increasingly intense acts of harassment. Aimes, who has recently left an abusive husband, doesn't take the job as a feminist statement. She takes it for the sixfold pay increase over her former job as a hairdresser in order take care of her two kids. That hard physical work breeds macho camaraderie is obvious, but director Niki Caro (whose last work was 2003's excellent Whale Rider) makes it clear through a deftly handled series of flashbacks that Josie has been dealing with the same attitudes her entire life. Theron effectively disappears into her character, although she doesn't ugly up nearly as much as she did for Monster. As one of the characters remarks early in the film, "She's kinda girly for a miner."
The supporting cast is uniformly good. Frances McDormand plays Glory, the sole female union representative, as an earthier version of Fargo's Marge Gunderson. (She's in Aeon Flux too). Sean Bean is Glory's husband, who gives a particularly good speech to Josie's son as tensions mount and the town turns against Josie. Woody Harrelson, as Josie's lawyer, does the best he can with the worst written major character in the film. It's when North Country veers into courtroom drama that it falls down. The proceedings are so trite and full of soap-opera conventions, especially when compared with the gritty verisimilitude of the rest of the movie, that these scenes threaten to derail the whole enterprise.
The melodrama with a message wouldn't be a tried and true Hollywood formula if it didn't work. It was probably ordained from the beginning that the ending of North Country would be pure schmaltz, but isn't that what you sign up for when you buy your ticket to a movie like this? Theron and Caro deliver the goods, and North Country will probably at least get Theron a repeat Oscar nomination. But the viewer can be forgiven if she thinks she's seen it all before.
Opening Friday, October 21st