North Country

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2006, 12:00am

North Country

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean

Director: Niki Caro

The film: Of all the major contenders at this year's academy awards, North Country was probably the most overlooked. During a year when Hollywood suddenly swerved into independent mode, the issue it broaches - sexual harassment in the workplace - is overshadowed by political films with a capital P.

Admittedly, it's not difficult to have misgivings with this film. What starts as a scathing indictment of the humiliation suffered by the first generation of women miners in the late 1980s suddenly shifts into melodrama.

Such criticism neglects what was memorable about the film: a gritty chronicle about how a group of women fought against the discrimination that made their daily grind a living hell. Based on Class Action, a book that documents the 10-year legal action Minnesota miner Lois Jenson brought against her employers, Eveleth Taconite, North Country reveals the misogyny that was prevalent in America's working-class mining belts. This is a world where women who 'take the men's jobs' face all manner of outrageous transgressions. ('So you want to be a lesbian now?' says the father of Josie Aimes, the Jenson-based character played by Theron.)

Things get decidedly worse from there: unsavoury names smeared on the walls of the women's changing rooms with excrement; endless grievances from dirty-talking men; frequent molestation. The women are meant not to 'squeal' to their supervisors by maintaining what Aimes' friend, the union representative Glory (Frances McDormand, with Theron, far left) calls an 'alligator's skin'.

All hell breaks loose when Aimes stands up against the abuse, braving the tirades meted out by the men and cowardly women who believe she's putting their futures, as much her's, on the line.

But it's here that the momentum that has driven the film suddenly goes off message and turns into an emotional, tear-jerking melodrama that ends with a hackneyed court scene and the inevitably queasy, morale-boosting 'we're all in this together' finale.

The extras: A documentary, Stories from the North Country, starts promisingly as Jenson and her co-workers relive their pithy existence as maltreated and molested miners. However, it eventually turns into just another behind-the-scenes featurette.

The verdict: A worthy enough work that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) handles masterfully before surrendering to convention and sentimentality. Another wasted opportunity from Hollywood.