North Country is a gripping, emotionally packed stunner of a drama that easily contends as the best film of 2005. Director Niki Caro and star Charlize Theron achieve cinematic greatness here. The film is utterly engrossing. It reaches deep into your psyche and establishes an emotional connection that is rarely experienced. Theron stars as abused wife Josey Aimes. She and her two children live with a drunken lout of a husband in the snowy confines of Northern Minnesota in 1989. Josey decides to leave and escapes with her children to her parent’s house. Josey has a tumultuous relationship with her brooding, judgmental father (Richard Jenkins). He has branded her as a slut of a daughter who has done nothing but cause him shame and disgrace. We learn that Josey’s oldest child, the teenage Sam (Thomas Curtis), was born while she was in high school. She has never named his father and been a notorious woman since his birth. Josey’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), quietly supports her daughter, but lives a subservient life to her domineering husband.
Josey, crushed by her father’s harshness, takes her family to stay with a high school friend, Glory (Frances McDormand) and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean). Glory is the only female truck driver at the Pearson Coal Mine, the lifeblood of their local town. The mine employs all the men, including Josey’s father. Josey decides it’s time to take control of her own destiny and support her children by herself. She, along with a few other women, are hired by the mine. The mine is a spectacularly rough place to work. The women are hated and despised by the men. They constantly assail them with pranks and aggressive sexual behavior. Josey has it the worst. She’s the prettiest and is known as a tramp. It turns out her immediate superior, Bobby (Jeremy Reznor), is an old flame from high school. He targets her, making her the brunt of his sexual advances. Life at the Pearson mine becomes intolerable for Josey. Bearing in mind the 1989 setting, she begins to watch the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill has challenged him publicly for sexual harassment. Josey decides she has to take action for herself and the other women. She enlists the aid of Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a lawyer and good friend of Glory’s husband. Josey’s battle for equality against the Pearson Mine turns the town against her. It opens old wounds and terrible truths about life in the “North Country” surface.
Charlize Theron won an Oscar for Best Actress playing serial killer Eileen Wuornos in “Monster”. That performance was not a fluke, because it’s my guess she’ll win again next February. Her portrayal of Josey Aimes is extraordinary. She crushes the screen with her presence. Josey suffers terribly throughout the film. She puts up with an intolerable amount of abuse and pain. But, like any mother, she will do anything to protect her children. There is a sub-plot that revolves around her relationship with her son. This is the emotional core of North Country. There are two scenes in particular that are so raw, so emotional; there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere in the theater. Charlize Theron embodies Josey. Her perfect Minnesotan accent, her eyes when she looks at her son, her yearning for her father’s attention, there is not enough praise for how substantive an acting performance this really is.
Niki Caro gained international acclaim for her debut film, “Whale Rider”. North Country is as good as a second film can get. Caro proves she is a director to be reckoned with. North Country, apart from the fantastic acting performances, is an incredible film to look at. Caro emphasizes the starkness and bleakness of Northern Minnesota. She uses tremendous wide angle shots to show how deserted the area is, then beautifully contrasts that by using tight, focused shots for the scenes in the mine and dramatic encounters between the actors. It is a deliberate strategy that’s meant to pull you into the struggle. Caro wants her audience to understand how difficult life is in such a place, and then compounds that with the other variables that Josey has to face. I was also impressed by Caro’s use of color during key scenes. She skillfully employs changes of color and hues to emphasize dramatic moments. This kind of attention to detail shows that she understood the pivotal moments in the script and wanted to emphasize them. Caro does an excellent job with North Country. She turns what is actually a small movie, especially budget-wise, into a soaring epic on screen.
While Caro and Theron get the lion’s share of credit for this film’s success, the scriptwriters and ensemble actors have to be mentioned for their contribution. Michael Seitzman adapted the screenplay from the book by Clara Bingham. North Country has quite a few dramatic and confrontational scenes. There is an air of realism that is achieved by the honesty of the characters conversations. It’s not at all contrived. Seitzman has a flair for writing honest dialogue. Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, and Jeremy Reznor also do superb work in North Country. Their supporting performances are brilliant and really balance Charlize Theron on screen. Each of their characters has a lot of one-on-one time with her. Their interaction helps her run through a litany of different emotional states. Frances McDormand, who also won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in “Fargo”, will be hard to beat for Best Supporting Actress.
Josey Aimes is an amalgamation of the real women who sued the North Country mining companies for sexual harassment and set the legal precedent in the United States. The film is a tribute to their struggle. Equal rights for all workers is clearly its message. Dramatic license has a tendency to go overboard in truth-based films, but I think North Country really succeeds in striking a perfect tone. It comes across as honest, not sappy or melodramatic. Therefore the dramatic punch becomes quite affecting the more involved we get as an audience. North Country will propel Niki Caro and Charlize Theron into the spotlight as the awards season starts up. They both deserve every accolade for this magnificent film.