Character Deferences

Washington City Paper | October 20, 2005
In film-history parlance, "Warner Bros. movie" generally refers to one of the socially conscious melodramas that the studio used to make in the '30s, rousing if glib tales of life's losers. Set in Minnesota's Iron Range as Anita Hill testifies against Clarence Thomas on TV, North Country is a new Warner Bros. movie in the spirit of the old. It's based--loosely, it would seem--on one woman's crusade to be treated with simple decency while working for a large mining operation where female laborers were decidedly unwelcome.

Although it's structured as a showcase for Charlize Theron, who plays single mom Josey Aimes, North Country is not in the stunt-performance league of Capote--or Theron's own breakthrough, Monster. Her character is required only to seem pretty, plucky, and righteously aggrieved. The film slaps Josey with a series of outrages, beginning with the beating that causes her to leave her abusive boyfriend, pack up her two kids, and return to her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins). An old friend, Glory (Frances McDormand), suggests that Josey join her at the mine, where only a few other women work. Either because she's more attractive than most or because of unresolved history with one of her co-workers, weasely former high-school classmate Bobby (Jeremy Renner), Josey becomes the focus of a harassment campaign. Ultimately, she turns to hockey-star-turned-lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to pursue a sex-discrimination case in which she seems to have no allies--not even 19-year-old Sherry (Michelle Monaghan), who's targeted just as much as Josey.

Adapted by screenwriter Michael Seitzman from Clara Bingham's book, North Country will offer no surprises to anyone who's seen Norma Rae, Silkwood, or other similar tales of women in toxic workplaces. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) tells the story in compressed scenes, occasionally flashing forward to her big finish, the preposterous courtroom showdown that uncorks old traumas and finally forces Josey's female co-workers to take a stand. Bill, apparently a graduate of the Vince Lombardi School of Law, badgers witnesses until the truth is revealed, in the process exposing a hidden infamy that everyone will have guessed an hour earlier. By then, Josey's dad and Glory's husband will already have stepped forward to redeem their gender.

Unlike Capote, whose Kansas is really Manitoba, North Country was shot (by veteran cinematographer and occasional director Chris Menges) in the area where it's set. That includes Hibbing, Bob Dylan's hometown, which gave someone the idea of stuffing the soundtrack with Dylan songs, performed by him and others. It's the sort of literal-minded touch you might expect from the makers of this predictable, well-meaning movie. Much like the Warner Bros. pictures of yore, North Country is neither subtle nor particularly artistic. Seventy years ago, however, such melodramas did their job in about 75 minutes. This one drags one for about two hours, wasting time on shopworn subplots and epiphanies that, in the era of cable-channel soapers, no one needs to go to the movies to see. In an attempt to sell the movie to a contemporary audience whose interest in workplace politics can't be assumed, the filmmakers have turned downplayed the distinctive details of Josey Aimes' story in favor of generic sentiment. CP

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