Release date: Oct. 21
U.S. distrib: Warner Bros.
Oscar alumni: Charlize Theron (actress, “Monster”), Frances McDormand (actress, “Fargo”), Sissy Spacek (actress, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), Chris Menges (cinematography, “The Mission,” The Killing Fields”)
About halfway into “North Country,” Charlize Theron as Minnesota coal miner Josey Aimes demands the right to speak at a crowded union meeting despite the palpable hatred in the hall. When the miners shout her down, her father (Richard Jenkins), who up to that point has meted out only distance and disapproval, rises to take her side. By the time he’s done speaking, it’s unlikely that many an eye will still be dry.
At that point, Academy voters who might have been prepared to dismiss “North Country” as a calculated Oscar grab are likely to realize they have something more to contend with; namely, a true-life inspired movie that manages to connect powerfully with the pain and pressures at work on the people of this isolated working-class community, amplified by some powerful acting turns.
Jenkins, for the union hall scene and the complexity of the performance leading up to it, is likely to land on the short list for supporting actor candidates; but it’s Theron’s lead performance that is drawing the most Oscar buzz.
Once again playing against her natural assets in a hard-luck role, Theron is Josie, a battered single mother of two who summons the grit to fight back against brutal on-the-job sexual harassment tolerated by the mining company. Unsupported by her female co-workers, who fear she’ll only make things worse, she manages at the 11th hour to rouse them to a ground-breaking class action lawsuit.
Roger Ebert was quick to blurt that Theron’s role “should get her another Oscar nom” in a broadcast review in which he and Richard Roeper both gave the film a “thumbs way up.” Variety‘s David Rooney observed that Theron’s Josie is “in many ways more accomplished” than the startling, make-up assisted transformation for which she won the Oscar in “Monster.” Also drawing Oscar talk is Frances McDormand, who plays a truck-driving fellow miner, stricken with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), who leaves her hospital bed to make a key courtroom appearance.
Director Niki Caro made her name with the marvelous “Whale Rider,” a movie set in New Zealand but propelled by similar emotional dynamics. She has chosen her material well, but not all reviewers are enchanted; some complain that this hard-hitting drama is didactic and heavy-handed, and that its smutty harassment tactics and courtroom revelations beg credibility.
Whether “North Country” truly resonates with Oscar voters may depend on whether they deem its issues, which culminated in the courtroom in 1989, timely enough.
The character Theron plays is a composite, invented by scribe Michael Seitzman, based on the travails of the women detailed in “Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. Seitzman’s time-jumping screenplay, which weaves courtroom scenes with powerful personal dilemmas, could also become a contender for awards attention. So, too, the striking, mood-setting cinematography of Chris Mendes, and a new song, “Tell Ol’ Bill,” contributed by Bob Dylan, a North Country native whose music figures prominently in the soundtrack.