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North Country (5/10)

by Tony Medley

When a movie is “inspired by a true story” it’s “Katie bar the door” for the filmmakers. They can do whatever they like, knowing that the audience will take what they put on the screen as gospel. If this film is based on a “true story,” what’s true about the movie is that there is a state called Minnesota and there was a woman who lived there and there was a lawsuit. End of truth.

Begin movie fantasy. Consistent with other feminist diatribes put out by Hollywood recently, you have to look hard to find a sympathetic male. With the exception of Woody Harrelson’s character, Bill White, and Sean Bean’s character (Kyle), all the men are hateful. But are there any bad women? Not really. One accuses Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) of sleeping with her husband, but her anger would be justified if she believed the allegation.

A Hollywood tale. Josey, mother of two children, leaves her physically abusive husband (no surprise there) and goes home to her disapproving father (Richard Jenkins; are you getting the flavor of this?) and her sympathetic mother (Sissy Spacek). Finally she gets a job working for a mining company. She didn’t work underground, however, according to the movie. She worked for the mining company, always above ground.

So she goes to work where she befriends Glory (Frances McDormand), the female union rep. Josey gets harassed, but, let’s face it, except for one incident, it’s not anything that rises much above being laughed at and made fun of. When I first heard about this movie I thought she actually worked underground in a mine and that the harassment was going to be horrific. It’s not horrific. In fact, it’s probably not actionable, which explains why the courtroom scenes are so insubstantial. There’s no case here! Unless some court is going to say that people writing nasty messages on the wall is actionable, because that’s about all that goes on. The men in the mine are unfriendly, but even in this day of political correctness, that’s not yet actionable.

All this is contrived fantasy that has little correlation to the real case of Jensen v. Eveleth, which is the movie’s claimed “inspiration.” That case was filed in the ‘70s and was the first one claiming sexual harassment. It dragged on for more than ten years before it was settled in 1991.

The truth was too much for Director Niki Caro, who instead has chosen to present another feminist tirade here. Interspersed throughout the film are clips of Anita Hill testifying against Clarence Thomas. This, I guess, is meant to equate the treatment of Josey with the treatment alleged by Hill. I didn’t believe a word of what Hill said, but she became a hero to feminists, who bought every sigh Hill made. I thought that Hill was just mounting a McCarthy-like attack against a black man who had the chutzpah to believe in conservative values, which, as we all know, is anathema to the left. So every time I saw the clips of Hill I had less and less sympathy for Josey.

Sure the men treat her badly. They don’t like her because women are taking men’s jobs. So they make life uncomfortable for her and her fellow women. Like everyone else watching the movie, I disliked the men, too. But the manipulation by Caro is so clumsily obvious that I really didn’t get too upset. Certainly not as upset as poor Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today show who almost cried tears when he was interviewing Theron and saying how horrible the men treated her.

Where this movie really fails is in the courtroom. Who knows what these courtroom scenes are about? Is it a trial? Is it a motion to have the case qualified as a class action? What are the issues? Nothing is ever explained. We are just shown scenes in a courtroom with no context. Even so, the audience is stuck with what Caro has chosen to show. Rarely will you see a more vapid courtroom confrontation than that between White and Josey’s main tormentor, Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner). Bobby has been a resolute opponent of Josey throughout the film. Only in Hollywood could White get him to recant his tale with such meager questioning. All the courtroom scenes are infantile, but White’s cross-examination (I guess it’s a cross; since we are never told what kind of hearing we’re watching, it’s just a guess) would be laughed out of the first year of law school. From White’s courtroom performance, it’s easy to understand why he’d rather play ice hockey by himself than practice law.

Whatever is the basis of these courtroom scenes, what’s the point? White is questioning Bobby about something that happened when he and Josey were in high school. What does that have to do with sexual harassment at the mine? How could that possibly be relevant? But Caro would have us believe that this would be allowed by the rules of evidence and, get this, that it would be dispositive of the entire case! How ridiculous. In fact, as mentioned, the real case lasted more than a decade and was undoubtedly extremely painful for plaintiff Jensen. What I found the most offensive about this movie is that it does not begin to show the horror of litigation for an individual litigant.

To make it even more ludicrous, Glory shows up, in advanced stages of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and “wants” to testify. Forget what the judge wants or what the opposition attorney wants, or if she’s sworn in or subject to cross-examination. This is Frances McDormand and she’s an Oscar winner and she gets what she wants!

Instead of setting up a case of harassment by showing what Josey had to go through and then building up to a courtroom confrontation dealing with the issues of what we have seen, the movie flips back and forth between the trial and Josey’s past life and her ordeal at the mine. It robs the film of a cohesive narrative that could have been far more compelling. But, then, given the fact that the film shows little basis for a claim of sexual harassment, maybe this confusing methodology is understandable. If you confuse the audience enough it won’t notice the lack of substance.

Theron is a beautiful woman and a gifted actress. But her last film, “Monster,” seemed to rationalize a female serial killer. Now this. At least she fits into the proper political groove in today’s Hollywood, so she’s right in line for lots of awards and lots more roles.

There is a touching scene between Josie and her son, Sammy (Thomas Curtis) that would have brought tears had I not been so disgusted by the movie by that point. It is a beautiful scene. It is noteworthy that when Josie is telling Sammy about being pregnant with him at such a young age and out of wedlock, she mentions that she could have given him up for adoption, but does not mention the possibility of abortion. Apparently this was a concept that Caro didn’t want to touch, raising, as it would, the fact that had Josey aborted him, killing him while he was still unseen in her womb, he never would have been born, completely deprived of life.

The cinematography (Chris Menges) is beautiful, and the acting is uniformly excellent. But anybody who thinks Theron deserves an Academy Award for her performance hasn’t seen “Proof” or “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” and their exceptional performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Julianne Moore, respectively. This is a long (over two hours), slow, monumentally disappointing film.

October 22, 2005