North Country (15)

Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Michael Seitzman (screenplay), Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler
On general release (not FACT) from 3rd February 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

I’m going to tell you what happens at the end of this film, but that’s because I don’t think anyone with two brain cells to rub together should waste their time on it. If you really don’t want to know the result, please look away after paragraph four.

In 1975, the first few women were hired to work in the mines of the Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota. One of those women was one Lois Jenson. In 1998 - after an eleven year legal struggle - Jenson won her class action sexual harassment lawsuit against the mine owners, who were forced to pay compensation and adopt a sexual harassment policy. There can be no doubt that hers must have been a courageous battle, but unfortunately the cartoonish pseudo-feminism of North Country completely fails to do her the ultimate justice.

This isn’t so much Oscar bait as two hours of pathetic pleading at the feet of the Academy - abasement that was rewarded with a couple of nominations (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) in the week of North Country’s UK release. It’s very loosely based on the Jenson case - the timescale is condensed, the characters changed and arguments simplified. In this version, screenwriter Michael Seitzman makes Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) his sort-of heroine. Having left her abusive husband, Josey flees to her hometown of Minnesota, where she meets old school friend Glory (Frances McDormand), who encourages her to apply for work in the mine.

Though the job is physically punishing, it brings in just enough money for Josey to feed and clothe her young son Sammy (Thomas Curtis). The only slight problem is that all her male co-workers are bastards - especially old flame Bobby (Jeremy Renner) - and the women are subjected to groping, crude remarks and wash rooms daubed with shit. The men who run the plant are bastards too, and aren’t too happy they were forced to take her on in the first place. Even Josey’s miner dad (Richard Jenkins) is a bastard, abandoning his “lesbian” daughter to the ravages of the pack.

So just in case you haven’t grasped it yet, all men are evil. But some are more evil than others; an aspiring lawyer (Woody Harrelson) is willing to help Josey in court - if only because he thinks it will further his career. And of course he wins the case, after Josey’s dad comes round for no apparent reason - provoking a ludicrous ‘I’m Spartacus’ style scene where all the men admit they are bastards but are willing to somehow fight their bastard genes.

Ok, so men often abuse women. It’s terrible. But not all men abuse women, so there must be material reasons why some men are abusers. If those reasons were overcome, maybe sexist abuse could be overcome too. Incidentally, those abusers in Washington have recently signed a bill into law which protects companies from just this kind of law suit, so it’s back to the drawing board, legal eagles.

The worst thing is, I get a horrible feeling that the sorry debacle was somehow meant to be 'empowering' for women. Paint-by-numbers fantasy objects portraying largely fictional characters might cheer some, but North Country’s relentless sexism and pessimism certainly didn’t bring a smile to my face.

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