‘North Country’ is just fine

Robert Taylor

Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson kick it in North Country.

Credit: Ben Breier

Can you feel it in the air? Oscar season has begun. One can always tell because posters permeate theaters with gorgeous stars trying to hide their beauty behind dirty faces and tears. North Country is the first bone being tossed to critics, and it’s fine.

Just fine.

It’s 1989 and Charlize Theron portrays one of the only female miners in a large mining community. The work conditions are atrocious and every male in the mines is either a sadist, a bigot or both.

Theron and the other female workers find phallic symbols in their lunchboxes, have various parts of their bodies grabbed, undergo every type of obscenity and more on a daily basis.

The abuse gets worse when Theron complains to management. Women in town label her a whore for no reason and her son believes the rumors that the miners circulate about her. Fed up with the treatment, she files a sexual harassment lawsuit against the mining company, and the rest is history.

The storyline is a grab-bag of cliches, take your pick. A rift between mother and son (plus, as an added bonus, father and daughter) that will be mended after the mother stands up for herself? Got it.

Girl-power moment in a courtroom that could never happen in real life but the judge allows anyway? Yup.

Woman working at the mine who contracts rare disease, but still stands up for her friend? It’s there.

None of this is original or very moving (unless you are a big sap for this type of film), but director Niki Caro, who directed the masterpiece Whale Rider, gives the actors the time they need to grow beyond the cliches and become their own characters.

Theron’s soon-to-be-a-2005-Oscar-nominee performance is quite good, but not up to the quality of her other recent work in Monster and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. She underplays scenes where she could have really brought the moment home and overplays a crucial parking lot standoff. But it doesn’t matter; she puts dirt on her face and therefore she will be nominated.

The rest of the cast does fine as well. No one really pops for me, though supporting actors Frances McDormand and Sean Bean will reap Oscar nominations as well because – well – because they play the token best friends who suffer a tragedy.

The film is amazingly well directed. Caro makes us feel the dirt and grime of the mines when we need to and still feel exhilarated by the shots of the gorgeous forests that surround it. It is odd, however, that such a great film like Whale Rider made a story that was like a fable seem realistic through the down-to-earth direction. But here she directs a “true story” (and don’t get me started on how sick I am of seeing that line open every movie at the multiplex nowadays) with such a slick style that makes the story seem almost improbable.

North Country is fine. Take your mother, she’ll be crying at the end, but don’t expect another Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich.

Contact ALL correspondent Robert Taylor at [email protected].