Feature films about sexual harassment are hardly a dime a dozen, so Niki Caro's North Country—gawky though it may be at times—comes as welcome. The facts of Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., America's first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit, obviously needed a few "improvements," primarily in the reinvention of Lois Jenson as a crucially lone heroine who must fight a picture-long battle not only to bring down abusive men but to win over the hearts and minds of her parents and her harassed and cowed sisters. If the film unfortunately hypes truth to Hollywood-size drama, Caro's depiction of documented vile attitudes, statements, and behaviors remains a valuable reminder of history that should never be repeated.
Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a Northern Minnesotan single mother who decides to take a job in the local iron mine. Women have only recently begun to be hired in the "Iron Range," and misogynist resistance runs from the small-town rank and file all the way up to the urban management offices. Josey and her fellow female employees are immediately subject to harrassment—a girlie calendar hanging in the manager's office, sexual insults and overtures, disgusting pranks, assaults, and the implicit threat of rape. "Work hard, keep your mouth shut, and take it like a man," Josey is told, but it's not long before her fire is lit: she's mad as hell, and she's not going to take it anymore.
Michael Seitzman's screenplay takes "inspiration" from the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law (by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler). The instances of harrassment all derive from the book, and the real-life character of Pat Kosmach becomes Glory (Frances McDormand), who has found her niche in the man's world of the mines but hides a personal secret. TV-set cameos by Anita Hill provide a cultural touchstone and imply the passage of time (between Josey's hiring and the resolution of the harassment case) that Caro otherwise expediently ignores.
Despite the surprisingly scrupulous adoption of details, director Caro needlessly pursues enhancements, sometimes selling the story rather than telling it. The personal drama behind Josey's character rewrites Jenson's personal history to heighten the dramatic stakes, with an exploration of the parentage of Josey's son distracting from the harrassment issue. Two fine actors (Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek) play Josey's parents, but the family dynamic smells funny, with old-fashioned Dad shamed into feminism by his wife and daughter (in real life, Jenson's father supported her in taking a job at the mine). The token inclusion of one sympathetic, though cowardly, male employee arguably undersells the real-life concern shown by some of the men on the job.
Missteps aside, North Country gets the job done. Cinematographer Chris Menges (Local Hero, The Killing Fields) ably evokes the gray Iron Range setting, and Caro gets good work from Theron, who voraciously tears into her character's post-traumatic stress. McDormand nimbly avoids every pitfall of her potentially cliched character, and let us all take a moment to give thanks for Sean Bean, who—as Glory's husband—finally gets to play a nice guy (a near-unrecognizable Xander Berkeley also spreads his wings, bringing idiosyncratic hatefulness to the mine foreman). North Country suggests that Caro—who last made the winning coming-of-age drama Whale Rider—may become the standard-bearer for post-milennial women's pictures.