A female ironworker fights back against abuse in the riveting North Country.

Mine Kampf 

A female ironworker fights back against abuse in the riveting North Country.

When we first see the protagonist of North Country, a working-class heroine portrayed by a deglamorized Charlize Theron, she's sporting a black eye and a slight limp, the results of an encounter with her abusive husband. We soon learn that Josey Aimes has only begun to take her lumps. Desperate to support two kids and declare a measure of independence, Josey leaves her husband and signs on for a job in a northern Minnesota iron mine, where her father already works. She may as well have descended into the ninth circle of hell: mercilessly hazed and harassed by resentful male co-workers, the embattled female miners are ordered by their foreman to "work hard, keep your mouth shut and take it like a man." Apparently, this advice extends to remaining silent when the Neanderthals grope you, put a dildo in your lunch pail, scrawl obscenities in excrement on the locker-room wall, or try to rape you on a pile of taconite. For Josey, the pay is liberating. At the mine, she earns six times what she made as a hairdresser's assistant. But the accompanying surcharge is gruesome: While management and union leaders look the other way, she is relentlessly terrorized.

Josey decides to fight back. Like Norma Rae, Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, this is the uplifting tale of a lone woman standing against power, and it's presented with a minimum of Hollywood gloss.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) tends here and there toward manipulation and heavy-handedness — in places, North Country has all the subtlety of a rock crusher — but she has the truth on her side. Based on a book called Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, the film has been updated from the early '80s to the early '90s (the original lawsuit was decided in 1984), and the heroine has been fictionalized. But the fundamentals of the conflict remain the same. Enraged by a 1974 federal consent decree that opened scarce mining jobs to women, the hard-bitten men at the company called Eveleth struck back with the fury of animals — not all of them, but enough to make life miserable and dangerous for the unwelcome "bitches" in their midst. Like Lois Jenson, the original plaintiff in the case against Eveleth, Theron's Josey has put up with vicious gossip and domestic nightmare even before she gets to the open pit, and that helps give her the strength to resist injustice. Framed — a bit too neatly perhaps — by courtroom testimony, Theron's portrait of a woman wronged has both great sensitivity and tremendous moral force. "Wear my shoes," Josey replies to a lawyer's insinuating question. "Tell me tough."

Happily, North Country is not all social-realist grit or straight sermonizing. The fine supporting performances here lend even more dramatic reach and human scale. Frances McDormand, who's been to Minnesota before in Fargo, is just right as Josey's friend and co-worker, Glory, and Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek do some nice work as Josey's conflicted parents. An anthem to womanhood and an ode to social justice, North Country is just right for our time, regardless of when it's set.

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