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Maneuvering through a man's world

Despite strong acting, a true story of harassment comes across as oddly fake in 'North Country.'

October 21, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

What Hollywood gives, Hollywood takes away. Studio filmmaking can make an event as fantastical as an alien invasion look like reality, and it can make something that actually took place feel as fake as crocodile tears. Which is what happens with "North Country."

Though this story of the sexual harassment class-action lawsuit that changed the lives of American working women is careful to say it is no more than "inspired by" the real-life situation, if there hadn't been a reality (detailed in "Class Action," Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler's excellent book) there would be nothing to film.

But to see this overly schematic movie, directed by "Whale Rider's" Niki Caro and starring Charlize Theron, is to be made to feel -- inaccurately as it turns out -- that the whole thing is a hopelessly exaggerated fabrication. The taint of the melodramatic techniques used in key segments infects the entire movie and makes us question the truth of a significant historical reality.

This is a shame not only because the real events don't need to be excessively Hollywoodized but because Caro and Theron bring good things to the table. The director has a gift for making emotion believable and works quite well with the film's strong group of supporting actresses, including Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan and Rusty Schwimmer. As for Theron, she does more genuine acting than she's ever done before.

Yes, I'm aware that the actress won an Oscar for playing Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," but that has always felt more like a frenzied stunt with Academy appeal than a fully realized performance. Under Caro's guidance, the connection Theron has made to the resolute, working-class woman she plays results in a performance that is at long last worth watching.

We meet the fictional Josey Aimes in 1989 at the nadir of her marriage. Her husband beats her, her children are difficult and she is forced to return home to Northern Minnesota to a submissive mother (Spacek) and a Neanderthal father (Richard Jenkins) whose default response is to blame his daughter for any and all problems.

Soon enough Josey runs into her old pal Glory (McDormand) who suggests she join her at the nearby mines, which have begun hiring women. Her unenlightened mine-worker father ("You want to be a lesbian now?") is dead against it, as is her mother ("If you take this job, it'll shame him"). Even her inevitably surly teenage son doesn't cut Josey a break.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with "North Country": Hardly anyone cuts Josey a break, ever.

By creating that hostile family and spicing things up with lines both obvious and sullen, writer Michael Seitzman has stacked the deck against our girl higher than a grain elevator. This is so much the case that when Josey shows up at the mine and all kinds of dreadful sexual humiliations start happening, the scenario already feels so relentlessly contrived we tend to discount what we're seeing here as well.

Which would be a mistake.

For according to the Bingham and Gansler book, much of the worst stuff in the film -- men ejaculating in women's clothing, placing dildos in lunchboxes, threatening rape -- actually happened to Lois Jenson, the individual Theron's character is based on, or to her co-workers. It's one of the frustrations of "North Country" that it is so desperate to position us on Josey Aimes' side -- even casting Jeremy Renner, the actor who starred as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, as her main tormentor -- that its attempts to bludgeon us into submission end up counterproductive.

This kind of emotional piling on gets worse in the second half, when Josey convinces lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to help her out and he comes up with the notion of pursuing the right of women to sue as a class over the newly defined area of sexual harassment.

In both the movie and in real life, the local union did not support the litigants and even the women themselves were divided over the correct course of action. In the movie, however, things are considerably hyped up, as Josey has to face down the requisite union hall full of unhinged and boorish chauvinists as well as participate in a courtroom scenario so clumsily contrived it would embarrass the creators of TV's "Perry Mason."

While "North Country" telescopes Josey's story into a tidy few years, the real-life Lois Jenson's saga lasted an agonizing quarter of a century and was a process so enervating that one set of judges who ruled on it said, "If our goal is to persuade the American people to utilize our courts as little as possible, we have furthered that objective in this case."

While it's a truism that movies have to take dramatic license to make complex stories fit into finite time frames, it is depressing to come across a movie whose over-eagerness to convince us makes us reject rather than embrace it.

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