One of the more heart-wrenching scenes in this week’s North Country, a film designed to wrench your heart, has Charlize Theron’s Josey Aimes striding buoyantly into the office of the president of the mine where she and her female co-workers have been enduring an unending torrent of sexual harassment. She is certain he will help her, make it stop, but instead he glibly offers to let her resign without the traditional two-weeks notice. The hurt and disappointment on our heroine’s face is worse than the taunts and catcalls, the groping and the come-ons. Whether this scene is exactly true is beside the point. It is true in spirit, which is one of the best ways to describe this powerful though somewhat flawed, film.
Josey Aimes has had a hard life. Pregnant at sixteen, she becomes the town tramp, at least in reputation, and those reps are hard to break. Later, she marries and has a daughter with what turns out to be an abusive husband. When she seeks refuge with her parents, her father’s only question at seeing his daughter’s bruised face is “Did he catch you with another man?” He’s a miner, a good, hardworking man, though unsure of how to express his feelings. It gets worse when Josey, eager to earn enough money to take care of herself and her kids, decides to take advantage of the recent federally mandated sexual desegregation of the mine and apply for a job. She gets it, but gets a taste of what’s to come when she is forced to submit to a gynecological exam upon acceptance of a position. The men of the mine, not all bad, to be sure, are like a closed society. Or, more appropriately, like a secret boy’s club, with a sign tacked above the clubhouse door that states in drippy red letters, “No Girls Allowed!” They feel threatened by the presence of the women, mistakenly viewing them as somehow stealing work from the men in an effort to, what? Emasculate them? Upturn society and it’s preordained roles? Put a crimp in the free-wheeling “guys only” atmosphere? Probably all of the above. The women who work at the mine are daily subject to discrimination, harassment, mental abuse, and sometimes physical abuse as well. It’s a constant sort of torture where the men become part of what feels like a mob mentality. If this sounds like I am describing a prison atmosphere, then that’s appropriate, because that’s what it felt like, watching it play out on screen. Why didn’t they just quit, you might ask. The women wanted to show they were as tough as men? Maybe. They were crusaders for a new age of feminism? Not likely. They just needed the work. They needed their jobs like anyone else, and when Josey decides that enough is enough, those jobs are put in jeopardy every time she rocks the boat. Spurred on by the ongoing Anita Hill hearings, she hires a lawyer, an ex-high school hockey star played remarkably understatedly by Woody Harrelson, who determines that the only way to win is by virtue of a class-action, a multi-party lawsuit that would keep the defense from being able to claim that Josey was either a “slut or a nut.” But getting other women on board in an atmosphere of fear and oppression will be the real trick.
I very much enjoyed this film, and really wasn’t bothered by the highly fictionalized aspects of this “true” story. As stated by the director, actual names and events would have been too damaging for the women of the area, who fought a 22 year battle against the kind of wanton cruelty and harassment that we assume happens only in third world countries. The acting is top-notch, with Theron’s performance being supported mightily by veterans Francis McDormand and Sissy Spacek. At times the courtroom scenes are a bit unrealistic, with lawyers plowing over the judge’s admonitions and shouting at witnesses, but it makes for dramatic moments. Perhaps my only real problem with the film is one that is difficult to explain. The film spends two hours telling us that these women, Josey in particular, do not deserve the treatment they are being given. They didn’t ask for it, whether they had too much to drink at the bar the night before, whether they went home with some guy, whether they mouthed off at a male co-worker, they did not deserve what they got. Josey is painted as promiscuous. But the movie tells me that she didn’t deserve to be harrassed. However, at the end of the film, we find out that Josie is not promiscuous after all (it’s kind of a shocker, and comes with a major hollywood bias that I would love to gripe about, but I’d give the surprise away) and it’s at that point that things start to turn for her, and her support system comes back. By framing the story in that way, the film, perhaps unconsciously, is suggesting that if she had been promiscuous, then maybe she would have deserved it, if only a little bit. It’s that ingrained prejudice, that promiscuous women are asking for trouble and promiscuous men are just “players,” that is a major stumbling block in the road toward sexual equality. Until we can fully accept that cruelty is unacceptable no matter what lifestyle a person leads, progress will be hampered. This movie comes close, but we still have a ways to go. Grade: B+
North Country is rated R for language and graphic, disturbing scenes of sexual harrassment.
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