Sunday, September 18, 2005

TIFF 2005: "NORTH COUNTRY" (Review)

(Gala Presentation) USA, 123 minutes
Directed by: Niki Caro
Screenplay by: Michael Seitzman
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean, Michelle Monaghan

Wearing its heart on its sleeve, “North Country” is a straightforward fictionalized telling of a landmark sexual harassment suit filed by female steel miners in Minnesota. Remarkably, this is not ancient labour history. The lawsuit was filed in the 1980s and wasn’t settled until 1997. It’s difficult for many of us to imagine these circumstances after the strides women made during the 70s, but the case – well documented in the book “Class Action,” on which the film is based – arose out of that sometimes still-lingering divisions between “men’s work” and “women’s work.”

To their credit, screenwriter Michael Seitzman and director Nike Caro (who took home a TIFF People’s Choice Award for her phenomenal debut, “Whale Rider”) mostly shy away from courtroom theatrics, focusing instead on the lead-up to the legal action and the personal stories of the characters involved.

Josey Aimes (Theron) finds herself alone and desperate after fleeing an abusive relationship with her teenage son and young daughter in tow. She lands on the doorstep of her parents (Spacek and Jenkins), with whom she has a tenuous relationship at best. When her friend Glory (McDormand) invites her to come and work with her at the local steel mine, she jumps at the chance to make as much money as her father and become self-sufficient. But at every turn this choice proves damaging to Josey: her father, already estranged due to his disapproval of her teenage pregnancy, turns his back on her. While boorish co-workers lay the obscenities on thick, others who might be sympathetic choose to turn a blind eye. Ultimately, Josey sees her reputation ruined and her relationship with her son in tatters as she pushes back against her tormentors.

She decides to file the aforementioned class action, with the help of downtrodden lawyer Bill White (Harrelson), but needs at least two more women to back her. However, despite what everyone knows is going on, a climate of willful obstinance from everyone around – including her female co-workers -- her makes that her biggest challenge.

Much like last year’s “The Sea Inside,” “North Country” is more about the issue and its effects on the people involved than the long, drawn-out lawsuit that inspired it. Caro uses the chill sparseness of the winter Minnesota landscape to full affect here, rendering the atmosphere bleak and unforgiving as Josey struggles to find her place within it. Performances are solid all around, with Theron leading the way and the supporting cast following suit. Jenkins, in particular, struck a chord as he takes the cold, stubborn, judgemental nature of Josey’s father and turns it into loving support and ardent defense. Sean Bean, finally clawing his way out of the stock villain role and playing a decent guy for a change, and Michelle Monaghan both show that even the smallest roles can be memorable ones when they’re well cast.

My only quibble is that Seitzman and Caro can’t quite do without the “great courtroom scene,” even if it is only at a preliminary hearing. It’s an ending that’s a bit heavy-handed after watching a story told with finesse and authenticity. That aside, it’s a very well-made film that’s bound to catch a great deal of attention come awards season.

-Lidia Ferrari