Saturday, February 04, 2006

Review - North Country

You know the Academy Awards are just around the corner when a film like North Country hits the cinema screens. It’s ‘inspired' by a true story; it stars the beautiful Charlize Theron slumming it again, as she did to winning effect in Monster; it covers the topics of sexism, disability and female empowerment, and it manipulates the viewers’ emotions using every trick in the book. This may sound like cynical Oscar-bait of the lowest order but the big surprise of North Country is that, for an hour or so at least, it’s not that bad at all.

Much of what’s good about North Country is down to Theron who, along with Frances McDormand, is well worth her Oscar nomination. She plays Josey Aimes, a mother of two who takes the kids and splits from her abusive husband when he leaves her in a bloody heap on the floor one time too many. Josey heads back to her childhood home in Minnesota to stay with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and her father Hank (Richard Jenkins), who is not exactly sympathetic to his daughter’s plight and instantly assumes that she must have done something to earn her black eye. Soon Hank is even more aggrieved at his daughter’s behaviour because Josey, spurred on by her best friend Glory (Frances McDormand), takes a job at the local iron mine where Hank also works. He’s not happy to see women doing “men’s work”, and he’s not the only one.

Men outnumber women at the plant by about 30 to 1 and Josey is exposed to her male colleagues' leering and hostility from early on, with plenty of sexual innuendo flying around and the girls being subjected to a number of childish pranks, like dildos turning up in their lunchboxes However, she’s making good money for the first time in her life, enabling her to buy her own house, and Josey thinks she can probably ignore much of what her male co-workers can throw at her, as the rest of the women at the factory seem to be able to do. This proves easier said than done though and, as the sexual harassment grows, Josey tries to complain; but she’s ignored by male officials at every level. When her decision to speak out leads to even worse abuse, Josey becomes a pariah both at work and in the wider community. With no-one to turn to, Josey enlists the help of a washed-up lawyer (Woody Harrelson) to take her employers to court.

Before the sadly ham-fisted final act, North Country is a plausible and engaging, if rather one-dimensional, piece of filmmaking. As the abuse meted out to Josey escalates, director Niki Caro manages to keep things understated and compelling. With the help of Chris Menges’ sharp cinematography she portrays Minnesota as a bleak and unforgiving place and her direction smartly emphasizes the intimidating environment these women are thrown into. Caro is helming her first film since the surprise success of Whale Rider and she again shows a gift for straightforward, emotive storytelling and the ability to capture the essence of a particular location.

North Country generally feels realistic and is surprisingly unpleasant in places. The more extreme examples of harassment depicted in the film involve obscene remarks being daubed on the women’s locker room in faeces, semen in their clothes, and a horrible scene which has deterred me from ever using a portable toilet again. However, the film disappoints with the depiction of the men perpetrating these acts, with few of them allowed to be anything more than caricatures. Aside from Josey’s father and lawyer, and Glory’s husband (Sean Bean), pretty much every man in the film is a sleazy, ignorant, crotch-grabber; and tipping the scales so heavily in Josey’s favour detracts from the film’s emotional resonance. Fortunately, the cast manage to give it some weight.

This film is an obvious star vehicle for Theron, and the star responds with a quite brilliant performance which goes some way to covering up the film’s often naïve approach. Theron has developed into a fascinating actress over the past few years; even before her breakthrough role in Monster she was giving intelligent and soulful performances in films like The Devil’s Advocate and
The Yards, and was often the best thing in such mediocre fare as The Astronaut’s Wife and Reindeer Games. She has certainly showed a much wider and deeper range than most people tend to expect from a model-turned-actress, and the subtlety and detail of her displays seem to grow with every film. In North Country Theron gives a touching and believable performance as Josey and it’s hard not to cheer for her as she single-handedly takes on the chauvinistic men around her.

However, Theron isn’t the only first-rate performer here and the two moments in the film which really moved me were provided by two of the supporting actors, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins. McDormand provoked laughter when her first words in the film made her sound exactly like Marge Gunderson, but every McDormand performance has its own nuances and personality, and her determination in the face of a crippling illness here is quietly powerful. Jenkins is typically good also as Josey’s father, who is ashamed of her daughter for so much of the film before eventually seeing the truth about his long-time friends and colleagues and finally showing Josey the respect she’s been lacking all her life. With solid support from Spacek, Harrelson and Bean, the cast really work hard to make this a much better film than it has any right to be.

But what a shame Caro nearly throws it all away in the final third. Much of the film’s last act is taken up with the court battle and here the film is suddenly bombarded with every Hollywood courtroom cliché you can possibly imagine. We get showboating speeches from lawyers, secrets from the past being revealed, tears and fisticuffs, people standing as one and even - get this - a passionate speech from a paralysed woman who can’t speak! The film pretty much collapses at this point with the entire case being turned on Josey’s sexual history, and a revelation about the identity of her son’s real father provides an unnecessary addition to this already soggy climax.

North Country is a bit of a mixed bag then. For over an hour it’s an honest and interesting offering while the final act is a shambles; but the impressive cast and Caro’s sprightly direction just about manage to make it work. The true story that this film has been adapted from - with huge dramatic liberties - is undeniably an inspiring and important one, but North Country is a film which doesn’t really manage to do it justice. There is plenty to like in North Country; but once you dig under the gritty and earnest façade, the film is revealed to be just another slice of Hollywood hokum with its eyes squarely on golden statuettes.