I don’t know that NORTH COUNTRY can even be said to have its heart in the right place. I’m not even sure that it has a heart. In recounting the events leading up to a sexual harassment class-action suit brought by a suitably plucky female miner in Minnesota, it cheapens the story “inspired” by actual events by telling it with a second-rate script that barely manages lip-service to the convictions that the characters espouse.
This film is as gray and barren as the frozen wastes of northern Minnesota where it’s set and on which the camera lingers as it rolls past the mines where our heroine, Josey (Charlize Theron) struggles to make a life for herself and her two kids. It’s 1989 and womenfolk aren’t welcome in the pit where the groping and worse that the menfolk dish out are just what the uppity females are asking for what with them taking jobs away from men who need them and their not knowing that their place is in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant. Josey, though, having been beaten by her husband one too many times sees things differently. As do the other handful of women who put up with the abuse because they need the job and there aren’t any others that pay that much in this remote part of America. That her father (Richard Jenkins), who has always seen her as a disappointment, has stopped speaking to her altogether is just more emotional trauma to be dealt with in a story that isn’t shy about piling it on. The film all but puts a halo glowing around Theron’s deliberately unflattering blonde shag to reinforce what a saint this woman is.
And therein lies the problem. This woman is just too good to be true and the paper tigers with which she spars are distinctly mildewed. There are no surprises in this by-the-numbers recounting of indignities, from her supervisor telling her to take it like a man, to a co-worker rubbing up against her suggestively, to the inevitable physical assault that spurs Josey to legal action. It all culminates in a courtroom with ex-jock and current lawyer Woody Harelson arguing the case where emotional breakthroughs are unconvincingly contrived in ways that are only slightly less amateurish than having one of the women fall prey to ALS, all the better for that courtroom confrontation with a vacuum cleaner hose coming out of her throat.
Theron as the much put upon Josey gives an honest performance, as does the rest of the cast, often giving better than the script provides them to work with. Sissy Spacek as Josey’s traditional homemaker of a mother is reduced to clucking and muttering like a live-action Marge Simpson over the tension in her family and Frances McDormand, as Josey’s tough-as-nails pal who gets her the job in the mine, revisits the better days of her FARGO character.
There is not a moment of NORTH COUNTRY that isn’t cynically calculated to create a prestige picture with overtones of relevance. There is not a scene where the words “submitted for your consideration” don’t seem to be scrolling across the action in a bid to soften up Academy voters. Rather than explore the very real complexity of a problem that is still as pernicious in the workplace as it was in 1989, it has chosen the safe route of easy cheers that lets everyone’s brains off the hook with a film that is so simple-minded that it’s nothing short of condescending.