Sunday 16 January 2022

Movie Review: North Country (2005)

A sexual harassment drama, North Country reveals the horrors of workplace bigotry directed at women trying to make a living.

The setting is northern Minnesota in 1989. With her two children in tow, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) escapes an abusive relationship and takes shelter at the home of her parents Hank and Alice (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek). To support herself she accepts the advice of her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) and takes a job at the local iron mine, where Hank works.

Josey finds the mine dominated by misogynistic and abusive men hostile to all the women workers. She is consistently subjected to demeaning insults, particularly from her manager Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner). Josey and Bobby knew each other from high school days, and now he persistently humiliates her with unwanted sexual advances. Both the union and management refuse to intervene. While the other women accept the abuse as part and parcel of the workplace, Josey reaches her limit and decides to take a stand, with help from lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson).

Inspired by the true story of Lois Jenson as chronicled in the book Class Action by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, North Country is a polished but also traditional workers' rights drama, highlighting a milestone case that set new standards for protecting women. Michael Seitzman's script combines courtroom face-offs, harrowing scenes of workplace cruelty, and Josey's hardscrabble life, and director Niki Caro weaves together a story about the quest for basic respect. 

The depictions of workplace harassment inject a large dose of exasperated anger at a culture that can harbour unconscionable acts and tolerate - indeed protect - atrocious male behaviour. The women's reactions and survival tactics are presented on a spectrum, from Glory insulating herself with a union role, to Big Betty (Rusty Schwimmer) shrugging it off, while others like Sherry (Michelle Monaghan) suffer in silence for fear of losing their jobs. As Josey raises concerns and starts to push back, the men retaliate with worse treatment, and the women exorcise Josey as a troublemaker threatening their livelihood.

But in some ways North Country tackles too much story. Josey's history, which of course becomes a topic of courtroom cross-examination, includes a high school encounter with a teacher, then an abusive relationship. Caro is sometimes at risk of trying to focus on too many directions at once, and in addition to the mine as employer, more than one man are presented as predators and placed in the position of pseudo-defendants. The melodramatics at the conclusion of the cinematic court case are also over-cooked to a crisp.

But an excellent cast helps overcome the weaker moments, with Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand the standouts. Theron is most effective during moments with her family, while McDormand deploys a hard shell at the workplace then navigates a life-altering disease. 

Peripheral themes add essential texture, including an inter-generational conflict within the family: Josey's father Hank instinctively agrees the mine is no place for women. Meanwhile Josey's struggles to be a good mom provide a warm flow to her tumultuous life, the troubled relationship with son Sammy an always spiky source of tension. Glory's husband Kyle (Sean Bean) plays a small but pivotal role with Sammy, and Woody Harrelson delivers an effectively low-key performance as a former high school hockey star turned lawyer with emotional scars of his own.

Expertly calibrating infuriation with triumphalism, North Country stands up for dignity.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.


  1. It is very much a revamped Norma Rae, but it's a pretty good revamping.

    1. Yes, good summary. It's awful to see how openly ugly and toxic some workplaces were, not that long ago.


We welcome reader comments about this post.