What is so wrong with being a glamour-puss? Nine years after she first made an impression in 2 Days in the Valley, after she De Niro–fied herself in Monster to snag an Academy Award, can't Charlize Theron relax a little into her dimples and bone structure? Yes, you're beautiful. And, yes, you can act. But are those two qualities so incompatible? Based on a true story, which resulted in a landmark sexual-harassment trial and ruling, North Country casts Theron in flannel and grime; she plays Josey Aimes, who flees a violent ex-husband and takes a mining job in Minnesota's Iron Range to support her two children. (This is also the birthplace of Bob Dylan, as the soundtrack reminds us, along with a confusing mélange of tunes reaching into the '90s.)
Maybe every generation needs its own Norma Rae, but North Country isn't that film. Playing Josey's mom, Sissy Spacek is on hand to give Theron a kind of strong- woman lineage back to the '70s, when feminist tales of fighting the system were still relatively fresh. I'm not saying Theron would've been out of the place during that period, but the ground has changed a lot from Silkwood to Erin Brockovich. Perhaps the harassment Josey and her few female colleagues have to endure—groping, dildos in lunch boxes, Sani-Cans toppled while occupied—is true to the facts and the period. The filmmaking, however, ought to have advanced since then; and I suspect sexual-harassment today has more to do with e-mail and JPEGS and webcams. Director Niki Caro's prior effort, Whale Rider, was basically notable for its cute young star and wonderful New Zealand setting. Its craft more resembled the school pageant where Keisha Castle-Hughes delivered her teary final monologue: Aim camera at actress, deliver big speech, cue applause. Caro reprises this frontal formula with Josey facing down a hostile union hall. Then she reprises it again by having her face down a hostile courtroom. Somewhere in between, Josey also faces down a hostile hockey arena where her son is playing.
The writing is no less crude, which defeats the superior acting instincts of Frances McDormand (softening her Fargo accent just a bit below caricature as Josey's main gal pal and support), Sean Bean (married to McDormand and a stable role model for Josey's son), and Woody Harrelson (the lawyer who takes Josey's case but can't quite close the deal with her heart). Poor Harrelson even has to tell his client, apropos of the frequent cutaways to the TV news, "Look at Anita Hill—she's you." Thanks for the clarification, fella. Caro frames the whole affair from a courtroom that makes Judge Judy's chambers seem a model of decorum and jurisprudence. When you need to roll in the final witness in a wheelchair, you know a movie's in trouble.
The only thing to recommend about North Country is cinematographer Chris Menges' depiction of the huge open-pit mines and massive machinery—there are grand traces of Margaret Bourke-White's WPA photos and the ravaged landscapes of Edward Burtynsky. The siting of real towns like Hibbing and Eveleth right next to the pits speaks to the social and economic imperatives here more powerfully than any dialogue. Yet, just to make things absolutely clear, the movie has Josey tell her chauvinist bosses, "I need this job." No, Charlize, you don't. (R)