From the first moments of North Country, director Niki Caro tries to make audiences viscerally feel the hurt fury that springs from institutional victimization. Like her much-loved previous feature Whale Rider, North Country is about women fighting a system that dismisses their humanity by denying their equality. But where Whale Rider addressed the topic with fairy-tale romanticism, North Country is as harsh as its gorgeously stark, frozen northern Minnesota locale. The story of America's first successful class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit may sound dull, but Caro ratchets up the intensity until every flung epithet and threat stings. The approach is sometimes shrill, but it's effective.
Based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler's non-fiction book Class Action, North Country fictionalizes the story of the first women hired as Minnesota iron miners following a '70s Supreme Court anti-discrimination mandate. Charlize Theron (as she did in Monster, playing unglamorous and likely shooting for Oscar recognition) stars as one of those women, a battered runaway wife out to support her two children and make a new life for herself in her hometown, alongside her bitterly contemptuous father (Richard Jenkins), her sympathetic but conflicted mother (Sissy Spacek), and her leather-tough old friend Frances McDormand, who first suggests a mine job. The work pays six times what Theron can earn anywhere else, so she initially endures openly degrading and sexist treatment, from her supervisor's public observation that the company doctor "says you look darn good under those clothes" to obscene graffiti, workplace groping, and casually hurled epithets. Even the people who write "cunts" on the women's locker-room door don't hurt as much as the public accusation that she's screwing her chief tormentor. McDormand and the other handful of female mine workers tell her to toughen up and shrug it off, but as the attacks escalate and management blames the victims, Theron becomes a leader more out of fearful desperation than rage.
North Country comes apart in its final act. It's no secret that early sexual harassment trials, like rape trials, often revolved around the plaintiffs' sex life, but while the film disparages that practice, it also awkwardly follows suit, and the final court battle is more about unnecessarily excusing Theron's teen pregnancy than vindicating her in the harassment case. But until that point, Caro, screenwriter Michael Seitzman, and a fantastic cast build up a terrific story that's too well-acted and too humanly complicated to be dismissed as an average courtroom drama. Some of the plot points seem irrelevant—in particular, McDormand's debilitating disease and a nascent relationship between Theron and lawyer-on-the-rebound Woody Harrelson are both underdeveloped and anemic. But Theron's anguished relationships with her resentful father and her equally resentful son are both played brilliantly, and her attempts to salvage their respect is as touching and redemptive as her fight for justice. Every man in her life has disappointed her, but like the best crusaders, she somehow manages to keep the faith.