North Country

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The opening credits for North Country claim that the movie is “inspired on a true story.” That puts in near the lower end of the Hollywood food chain for “true” stories. At the top would be the actual true stories, which are understandably rare. Even the “truest” films tend to employ some level of creative license, compositing characters and compressing events to make the story more “cinematic.” The next level down would be “based on a true story,” which roughly translates to, “We made up some shit to tailor the story to the A-List actor that we busted our ass to sign.”

“Inspired by a true story” takes this one step further, telling you that if you squint real hard, you may see a vague resemblance between the movie and the actual events. The story has the same basic shape as the reality but the details that make up the interior are largely the invention of the filmmakers.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of the above forms of storytelling, and if North Country had managed to wrap a compelling movie around the premise of a landmark class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit by a group of female miners in Northern Minnesota, everything would have been just hunky-dory.

Unfortunately, director Niki Caro, who was responsible for the magical Whale Rider, is betrayed by a script that never ascends above the level of a TV movie on the Lifetime cable network.

It’s a shame, because it wastes some first-rate performances by its fine cast. Charlize Theron is convincing as Josie, the working class single mother who takes a job in the mine after leaving her abusive boyfriend. It’s not nearly the stretch as her role in Monster, but it doesn’t need to be. Frances McDormand, playing Glory, the no-nonsense union rep, manages to carve out a character completely distinct from her Fargo character, despite the similarity in geography and accent.

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The big problem is the film’s tendency to portray anyone with a penis as one step below the monkey cage at the Minnesota Zoo. There are one or two men who are not complete pigs. There is Bill White (Woody Harrelson), the hockey player turned lawyer who takes Josie’s case, but his character is barely a sketch. Glory’s husband, Kyle (Sean Bean), is noble and self-sacrificing, but he doesn’t work at the mine either.

The real failure of this movie is its inability to distinguish between the men at mine who were active participants in the harassment and those who were either bystanders or actually helped. The Y chromosomes at the mine are nothing more than one large, amorphous blob of Neanderthal behavior.

Another shortcoming of this picture is the way it portrays the issue as strictly a male-female issue of sexual harassment. While it’s true that these women were intruding into a traditionally male, and extremely macho, work environment, they were also, in another sense, a minority competing for jobs against the workforce that had traditionally dominated the trade, increasing the size of the available workforce, competing for the same number of jobs and potentially depressing wages.

In addition to being a gender issue, there is also a connection to similarly situations throughout history; from ethnic Irish opposition to fighting in the American Civil War because they were afraid that freed slaves would compete for the lowest wage jobs to the violence against Vietnamese fisherman in Galveston, TX, just to name two.

Even if none of the above were true, the film ends on such a false, contrived bit of courtroom shenanigans that it would undermine even a much more effective film. Had I been a producer on this project and the script had crossed my desk, I would have called screenwriter Michael Seitzman into my office and asked, “Have you ever even been inside a courtroom? This shit wouldn’t pass muster on Boston Legal.”

It is a shame because of the technical level of the craftsmanship that went into this film. Chris Menges’s stark cinematography manages to make Northern Minnesota look less inviting than the ice planet in The Empire Strikes Back. There is enough solid work onscreen to make you genuinely sad that the source material was so weak.

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