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10/11/2005 - NORTH COUNTRY


Does an important subject guarantee a good movie? For NORTH COUNTRY, I'd say almost but not quite.

Directed by Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER) and written by Michael Seitzman, the based-on-a-true-story NORTH COUNTRY is about Josey (Charlize Theron), a Minnesota miner who suffers so much sexual harassment on the job that she brings her company to court. This is certainly an important subject for a movie, for if one person's rights are violated, then the rights of everyone else are in danger. And in an age when most movies are style over substance, any film that is actually relevant to the way we live should be welcomed.

Better still, Josey is a compelling protagonist, an intriguing mixture of inner strength and self-loathing, the latter due to a tragic incident from her past. We're all complex, conflicted human beings, so it's easier to emotionally identify with characters like that on screen. And because the abuse Josey receives at the hands of her co-workers (both male and female) is so unwarranted (her reputation as a troublemaker and town slut has been trumped up), it's very easy to root for her as she tries to get her dignity back via the courtroom.

Another plus is Chris Menges' breathtaking cinematography. The wintry Minnesota landscape is captured in all its stark beauty, while the iron mine itself is so atmospherically portrayed you feel as if you're coughing up dust along with the workers.

But NORTH COUNTRY's cast is the real marvel. Charlize Theron proves her Oscar win for MONSTER is no fluke, expertly nailing every facet of Josey's character, from the steely determination to defend herself and her female co-workers from harassment, to the self-destructive anger that alienates everyone around her, including her own son. Charlize has plenty of able support, from Frances McDormand and Sean Bean as the friends struggling with a crisis of their own (it's wonderful to see perennial heavy Bean finally play a nice guy), to Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek as the conservative parents whose own marriage, and preconceptions, are thrown into turmoil by their daughter's quest.

Nevertheless, the important subject, atmospheric cinematography and engaging performances cannot completely compensate for a script which traffics in clich?s. You have the drunken, self-loathing lawyer looking to make a comeback with an "underdog vs. the establishment" case, the best friend who comes down with a fatal disease, thereby inspiring all the fence-sitters to do the right thing, and finally the antagonist, so cunning throughout the entire story, suddenly confessing his wrongdoing on the stand to the advantage of the good guys (the same flaw bothered me in A FEW GOOD MEN). These trite plot turns often undermine the movie's "reality," and if an audience doesn't experience the events on screen as real, it's unlikely they'll remain emotionally involved in the story. It doesn't help matters that the script's big revelation (the tragic incident from Charlize's past) is telegraphed from the start, giving the story a sense of predictability as well.

The script is also wobbly on characterization. While Charlize's protagonist is well-sketched, the lawyer played by Woody Harrelson is underwritten to the point of confusion. Harrelson has returned from New York a drunken failure, but it's never explained why. Was it his divorce? Did he get sick of representing sleazebag clients? The latter would make it understandable why Harrelson would take on Charlize's noble cause as a way of redeeming himself, but Harrelson bluntly tells Charlize that he is helping her for selfish reasons. He wants to make a big splash doing what no lawyer has done before -- bring a class-action sexual harassment suit to trial. This doesn't exactly make him an endearing character. Another drawback is the abbreviated arc of Charlize's father, played by Richard Jenkins. Despite this estimable actor's best efforts, the father's transformation from cold-hearted to warm-hearted feels much too "overnight" to work.

Then there are the structural issues. NORTH COUNTRY is about one woman fighting sexual harassment via the legal system. But the trial doesn't start until two-thirds of the way through, meaning the rest of the script is all set-up: Charlize's background, the growing abuse at work and so on. Movies get their forward momentum from the lead character embarking on a quest, and having the lead not embark on that quest until late in the story (when Charlize decides to take on the mining company in court) gives NORTH COUNTRY a sluggish feel that makes it seem longer than its two-hour running time. (It's true the movie opens with the trial, then flashes back to how Charlize got there, but until the picture visually dramatizes her decision to go to court, there is little forward momentum.) Having the trial (or at least the preparations for the trial) begin by the mid-point would have remedied this issue, as well as made the trial itself feel less rushed and perfunctory, something which wastes an opportunity for generating suspense.

Some focus would have also helped the structure. There is a subplot about a major character struck down by a fatal disease, certainly an emotionally affecting event, but at best a tangential relationship to the sexual harassment storyline, making NORTH COUNTRY at times feel like two different movies clumsily yoked together. Losing the fatal-disease subplot would have streamlined the script, allowing the sexual harassment trial to begin sooner.

Does an important subject guarantee a good movie? Not exactly, but an audience could do far worse than spending time with NORTH COUNTRY, a movie which has its heart, if not its script, in the right place.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.


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