While the magical folkloric elements of “Whale Rider” may be its most immediately striking factor, the depth of feeling invested by Niki Caro in the bonds between characters holds the movie together. Finely etched bonds — linking couples, family, community — also supply the heart of the New Zealand director’s first American feature, “North Country.” A stirring drama about a groundbreaking class action sexual harassment suit, pic indulges in movie-ish manipulation in its climactic courtroom scenes. But it remains an emotionally potent story told with great dignity, to which women especially will respond, giving Warner very solid footing among the fourth-quarter quality releases.
In addition to Caro’s graceful transition from a modestly scaled, locally made feature to larger-canvas work and to a highly specific American environment, the film represents a confident next step for lead Charlize Theron. Though the challenges of following a career-redefining Oscar role have stymied actresses, Theron segues from “Monster” to a performance in many ways more accomplished.
While the role again calls for the thesp to be deglamorized, it has none of the attention-getting physical assists of her transforming turn as Aileen Wuornos. Instead, Theron gives a measured, deeply felt characterization of a good woman scarred by injustices and inequalities, who wants simply to take charge of her life and provide for her children.
The strength of both the performance and character anchor the film firmly in the tradition of other dramas about working-class women leading the fight over industrial workplace issues, such as “Norma Rae” or “Silkwood.”
Inspired by facts lifted from the book “Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” Michael Seitzman’s screenplay moves dexterously between past and present. Beginning in court, the drama retraces the grievances that led Josie Aimes (Theron) there, the factors that prompted her to seek work in the man’s world of a northern Minnesota iron mine, and a dark, formative episode from her past, dredged up in the mining company’s standard “nuts and sluts” defense.
Fresh out of a bad marriage, Josie moves back home with her parents, Alice (Sissy Spacek) and Hank (Richard Jenkins), both of whom encourage her to overlook her husband’s violent tendencies and patch up the marriage. With two kids by different fathers, Josie already is the cause of local gossip, but her rigid father’s sense of shame intensifies to resentment when she responds to the suggestion of her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) that she seek work at the mine.
A veteran pit man, Hank’s bitterness is minor, however, compared to the aggression of other miners, who respond to the Supreme Court’s enforced quotas for women in the sector’s shrinking job market with open scorn and sexual intimidation.
Present at every level, this hostility is amplified with each attempt by Josie to draw attention to the transgressions. Her protests earn her the contempt of the men responsible and also of the women who are the victims.
Caro is a humanistic filmmaker, her work more satisfying and delicate in sketching the good guys than the bad. The camaraderie between the small group of women miners is observed with a gentle, economical touch, while the bullying men seem perhaps too collectively irredeemable a presence. When, during the turning point in the court hearings, a number of people of both genders stand in support of Josie, the invisibility of these representatives of good conscience during the earlier misdemeanors underlines a slightly nagging suggestion of heavy-handedness.
But the movie’s genuinely affecting strengths more than overcome this. Aided immeasurably by the gritty, unvarnished textures of Chris Menges’ widescreen camera work, which gives the film both physical and emotional majesty, Caro creates a vivid sense of the women’s isolation and powerlessness. This climate of fear and wariness is achieved not only through scenes depicting the indignities they suffer but also in the sheer brute presence of the mine itself: a big, clanking industrial monster squatting in the middle of a vast landscape blanketed in snow. The descriptive aerial shots are especially eloquent.
The cast, too, is in top form. There’s no grandstanding in Theron’s lovely performance, just a quiet understanding and sensitivity to the ways in which a woman of average intellect and limited experience can summon the instinctive will to fight. (Without hammering the point, the script has Josie’s articulation of sexual harassment issues fueled by TV coverage of the Anita Hill hearings.)
While the drama perhaps doesn’t need Glory’s devastating illness, McDormand as always creates a memorable character, whose straight-up, savvy manner has made her the only respected woman in the mining company. And “Fargo” fans will get a kick out of hearing her mouth those Minnesotan vowels again.
Sean Bean gets a welcome break from playing Euro villains, bringing gentle nuances to Glory’s supportive husband. Woody Harrelson also plays well against type as a former ice hockey star-turned-lawyer, who takes on Josie’s case as he inches hesitantly toward deeper involvement with her.
Jenkins and Spacek supply complex shadings to Josie’s conflicted parents, with Hank’s unbending anger crumbling as family loyalty and personal morality take hold, while Alice’s traditional religious views of spousal compliance are outweighed by her clear sense of what’s right.
Seitzman’s script maintains a judicious balance between Josie’s quest for justice and her dealings with family, in particular her troubled teenage son (Thomas Curtis). It’s this depth of attention to the personal details beyond the drama’s frontline agenda that successfully offset the programmatic developments in the later stages of the hearings.
The film makes fine use of a lilting score laced with strumming guitars and other strings. In addition to his contributions to “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Brokeback Mountain,” Gustavo Santaolalla’s skill at creating a subtle, distinctive musical mood makes him one of the most interesting film composers to emerge in recent years.