North Country, the fictionalized story of the first class-action sexual harassment suit in the United States, engulfs you in the tingling snow-swept vistas of northern Minnesota. Shot with unpretentious eloquence by the legendary Chris Menges, they slap you to attention and at times lift your spirits even when you're watching dispirited women and dispiriting men tramp through these wide-open, densely textured landscapes.
With the songs of Bob Dylan (a Hibbing, Minn., native) keening on the soundtrack, and Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand defrosting their emotions and acting their hearts out as (respectively) a single mother of two working in the iron mines and her best friend and union rep, you stay with the movie for more than an hour. The director, Niki Caro, and her writer, Michael Seitzman, patiently detail how male locker-room banter, taken out of the locker-room, creates an environment that demeans women and encourages casual atrocities - horrifying insults and assaults, and even a near-rape.
But the personal story the filmmakers create for Theron's character, involving the embarrassment of her son (Thomas Curtis) and her iron-ranger dad (Richard Jenkins) over her unfair reputation for sleeping around, peters away instead of paying off. No matter how much conviction the actors bring to the table, their moments of communion come off pre-fab. By the end, the film's message is more Paul Simon than Dylan: on even the saddest days, a parent and child reunion is only a motion away.
Caro has a firm hand on women's wildly different strategies for coping with piggery, from Theron's whistle-blowing to McDormand's jaunty, below-the-belt comebacks. Still, Caro and her screenwriter don't approach the lucidity or complexity of their source book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law (by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler). And their dramaturgy devolves into covering the bases. By the time Theron persuades McDormand's lawyer friend (Woody Harrelson) to take her case to court, the moviemakers lose their grip and flow.
Harrelson breaks down one crucial witness in a pathetic Perry Mason moment. Even worse, the female hard hats who've spurned Theron's cries for help ultimately show their solidarity in a climax straight out of Norma Rae.
Sissy Spacek brings a more subtle, conflicted note to the role of Theron's mom, who understands her husband's pride in the mine but can't abide his lack of faith in his daughter. And as McDormand's supportive and besotted husband, Sean Bean, usually cast as a hothead, displays a welcome, mellow aspect without losing his power to flare.
Theron, more potent here than in her Oscar-winning stunt role in Monster, knows how to exploit her tall, pale beauty to make the heroine's humiliation palpable. Still, if this performance proves her seriousness, the movie doesn't test her depths of humor and sensuality - and it would be richer and wiser if it did.
You don't have to be a chauvinist, just a movie-lover, to hope that Theron and McDormand air more of their high spirits in the forthcoming Aeon Flux, an extravagant futuristic fantasy. At best, North Country just inspires you to read the book.
North Country (Warner Bros.)
Starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sissy Spacek.
Directed by Niki Caro.
Time 123 minutes.