BY MATT JUSTUS
Directed by Niki Caro Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean
This past weekend I saw two films: North Country and Serenity. One of them was witty, exciting – easily one of the top five films of its genre I’ve ever seen, and definitely worthy of a revision to my Top Five of 2005 list of a few weeks ago. The other one was North Country, but since that just came out on DVD last week I figured I’d review it instead.
Serenity, based on the short-lived television series “Firefly,” is set in the distant future, in a period mixing high technology with the Old West. The cast, though not star-studded, is pitch-perfect – but I’m supposed to be reviewing North Country. Sorry about that.
There are some films that, on first viewing, just don’t seem that great. Only as you’re discussing them afterward, or seeing them for a second time, are you able to pick up on what makes them so good. The perfect example of such a film, to me, is Monty Python and the Holy Grail – not so funny at first, hilarious when you try and tell your friends about it. Niki Caro’s North Country is like that, but in reverse – powerful during the experience, but unable to hold up afterward.
The film is a fictionalized account of Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., the first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment in America. It follows Josey Aimes, a woman who, after leaving her abusive husband, gets a job at a mining company that makes my old job at the Post Office look pretty glamorous. The women at the mine are seen as intruders, stealing jobs from men who need them to feed their families; the fact that the women might be supporting families of their own doesn’t seem to occur to the men. The women are casually forced to endure an array of abuse in the workplace, from the roaming hands of their coworkers to finding things best left to the imagination in their lunchboxes. Josey, an attractive woman, is more subject to their attentions than many of the other women, and when she begins to complain about the abuse, she is told to “spend less time in the beds of [her] married male coworkers” and get back to work.
As Josey attempts to organize the women of the mine in order to do something about their treatment, things escalate from merely shocking to downright monstrous – at one point a portable bathroom is tipped over with a woman inside, and Josey is physically assaulted by her supervisor. The women need their jobs and become angry with Josey for making things worse, initially refusing to join her class action lawsuit against the company.
Charlize Theron is on-target playing Josey, a character fairly similar to her Oscar-winning role as Aileen Wuornos in Monster; the difference being that Josey uses the legal system to fight her oppressors where Wuornos turned to violence. However, the performances of the supporting cast are where this film really shines: Frances McDormand is deserving of her Oscar nomination as Glory, a woman who avoided persecution at the mine by joining the union and fighting for the male workers to gain their respect. Sean Bean is also excellent, carrying scenes that would have seemed melodramatic had other actors played them (and did seem melodramatic when other actors did play them in this very movie), and I would have liked to see him recognized by the Academy for his work here as well.
The film stumbles in its treatment of the subject matter, particularly its depiction of the trial at the end. The portrayal of the working conditions doesn’t go completely over the top, though the harassment appears so brutal that you have to wonder why more of the women don’t quit, even if they do have families to feed. Then, at trial, the defense introduces a piece of evidence that they would have realized was quite harmful to their case had they discussed it beforehand. Woody Harrelson, as Josey’s lawyer, demonstrates this to the courtroom by absolutely brutalizing a witness on the stand, ignoring the protestations of the judge and opposing counsel. After that, legal procedure collapses entirely, though it does make for a compelling movie moment.
What we have here is a film that is very powerful during the first viewing, and elements of which remain powerful thereafter. Yet the treatment constantly walks that fine line between drama and melodrama, and slips entirely into the latter camp as the film winds to a close.
In conclusion, Serenity was awesome.
Theatrical Trailer – Self-explanatory.
Deleted Scenes – We get about eleven minutes of deleted scenes, none of which are particularly necessary to the story. Most of them involve character interaction that’s already been established throughout the rest of the film. There is one interesting scene here between Theron and Harrelson, in which he reveals that his specialty is settling cases and that he’s never actually tried one before, but it doesn’t jive with his eloquence (and ability to break a witness) in the courtroom later.
“Stories from the North Country” – A sixteen-minute documentary that covers the inspiration for the film and goes into some detail about the process of making it, complete with interviews with the cast and some of the women involved in the actual lawsuit. The major difference between the film and reality, it seems, is that the film puts all of the drive to begin the lawsuit on one woman, and makes all the rest out to be too scared to go forward with it until the end, whereas in actuality it was much more of a group effort. They also go to greater lengths to explain that not all of the men in the workplace were involved. I think that was one of the problems with the film – they had to present this harsh environment to show why a lawsuit was needed, but they went too far and made it look like literally everyone there was out to get them.
**1/2 – Strong performances all around and gripping subject matter make this film worth seeing once at least, but don’t believe all of the hype.
(Matt Justus really, really liked Serenity.)