If it does nothing else, North Country indicates that in the midst of the hype, the slick, and the schlock, Hollywood maintains some remnant of its honorable tradition of political awareness and social consciousness.
Not coincidentally, the movie, inspired, as its makers state, by real events, also exhibits those liberal tendencies that send the crybaby conservatives into their usual paroxysms of moaning, whining, and hand wringing. Although the picture deals with issues involving the industrial working class, and certainly locates its sympathies in that social stratum, it also treats the attitudes and behaviors of the American worker with some objectivity, avoiding the familiar sentimentality of the affluent bourgeoisie afflicted by the romance of the blue collar.
Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a young mother with two children who leaves an abusive husband and returns to her hometown in the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota. Her best friend Glory (Frances McDormand) persuades her to apply for a job with the town's main employer, the local iron mining company, which by law must now accept women workers. The hard, dirty work pays well but also demands courage and self control in the face of the hostility of the other workers, who resent the women taking jobs away from men.
The men conduct a concerted campaign of harassment that covers a wide range of words and actions, from the usual dirty remarks, cruel pranks, and obscene gestures and graffiti (the wit in the Iron Range tends to avoid subtlety), to defiling the women's locker room, and ultimately to an assault on Josey. She complains to her supervisor and even the owner of the company, but they refuse to believe her and advise her to leave the job. The other women fear that her reaction will make the environment worse and blame her for their treatment; the union, dominated by the male workers, provides no assistance, so Josey enlists a reluctant lawyer (Woody Harrelson) to bring a sexual harassment suit against the company.
The picture employs a number of courtroom scenes, interrupting the narrative with flashbacks and flash forwards, to structure and connect the several threads of action and character. The courtroom sequences, which frame most of the story and provide its climactic moments, introduce several important events in Josey's adolescence; at other times the picture resumes a more or less normal chronology in its depiction of Josey's problems with her children and her father (Richard Jenkins), alienated by his disapproval of her choices in life and work.
Because she chooses to speak out about the situation, Josey earns the enmity of the whole town: other women call her a whore; her assailant, an old boyfriend, claims of course that she was "asking for it"; and even her young son comes to hate her. Further, as others have learned, the alleged solidarity of the unions doesn't always translate into defending the powerless against the powerful.
Those reactions demonstrate the insight of the writer and director, who obviously understand the cowardice of the many in opposition to the courage of one, the triumph of the herd over the individual, and the stifling insularity of a small town in a fit of morality.
In its display of the rugged Minnesota landscape, the snow-covered fields, the noise and smoke and filth of an open-pit iron mine, the movie reflects a most convincing authenticity. That careful attention to the look and feel of the region extends to the more restricted and domestic locations --- the small frame houses in bleak neighborhoods dominated by factories and smokestacks, the cramped interiors, the dark smoky bars with country tunes on the juke box, providing background music for dancing and brawling --- which help to define and explain some of Josey's life and the attitudes of the people around her.
The actors in just about every part seem to grow naturally out of the cinematic landscape they inhabit. The faces, the gestures, the accents --- Frances McDormand simply retained hers from Fargo --- combine to invest the picture with a conviction that validates its emotions.
North Country combines its excellent writing, directing, and acting with a genuine feel for the lives of its people and an intelligent and rare understanding of some relevant social and political themes.
North Country (R), directed by Niki Caro, is playing at Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge 16, Eastview 13, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown, Webster 12