Screens First in, first out

The legal vanguard is lonely and soon forgotten, but North Country reminds us why it matters

Many people most, perhaps would find it perverse to celebrate a new kind of lawsuit. That’s particularly true when the litigation in question has led to new strata of expenses and concerns for the innocent as well as the guilty, and has left the door open (as is the case with any successful lawsuit) for frivolous and fraudulent claims.

For anyone who remains unconvinced that sexual harassment in the workplace is a legitimate issue for the court’s intervention, though, North Country should prove instructive. Inspired by (if not wholly based on) the first sexual-harassment case to be granted “class action” status that is, to make a group of people the plaintiff instead of one individual the film makes no attempt to be subtle in showing how horrible things can be in a workplace, even when 99.9 percent of witnesses claim there’s nothing wrong and that anyone with a complaint is just a thin-skinned crybaby.

Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, standing center, stars in North Country, a dramatization of the country’s first class-action sexual-harassment case.

The workplace in question is a coal mine, possibly the only place in the film’s small city for a single person to earn enough to raise a family. At the time the film takes place, 1989, women workers like Charlize Theron’s Josey Aimes, the mother of two who has fled an abusive husband and would have to move back in with her parents without a miner’s salary are outnumbered 30 to one. Even so, the men feel threatened: The official line is that these women are taking jobs that should go to heads of households, but given the nature of the taunting these workers receive, which is exclusively sexual, viewers may suspect the men are threatened in other ways.

The abuse ranges from jokes and innuendo the kind of insults that one lunkhead might direct at another in a locker room to what might best be called small-scale terrorism: Women become afraid to open their lockers and lunchboxes for fear of what they might find. Eventually, cowardly forms of intimidation give way to direct physical assault.

Shockingly (and making sense of a mindset that prevailed less than 20 years ago is one of the film’s public services), only one woman at the mining company is willing to confront the management about this environment. The script, in which characters often tell Josey that she’s making mountains of molehills, suggests that even when a grievance is irrefutably valid it might take a certain sort of complainer to take the first step, and unfortunately that sort of person often looks like a boy crying wolf.

North Country
Dir. Niki Caro; writ. Clara Bingham, Michael Seitzman, based on a book by Laura Leedy; feat. Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner (R)

This is where the issue of class action comes into play. As Woody Harrelson’s lawyer explains, harassment suits have heretofore been handled with the “nuts and sluts” defense: As Josey sees in Anita Hill’s televised testimony to Congress, it’s easy to make a single accuser look like she either imagined or secretly wanted the sexual attention she received. That defense is a good deal less effective when a suit is brought on behalf of every female employee in a company. With the scenario explained in terms this simple, even Rush Limbaugh might see the use of class-action litigation.

North Country boasts a very good cast from Theron to excellent supporting turns from Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and Sissy Spacek, who almost functions as a moral seal of approval and the actors do what they can to pull things back from the brink when director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) eventually strays into territory all too familiar to fans of fight-the-power cinema. Occasionally, as in a courtroom scene that mixes Perry Mason with Spartacus, the film’s melodramatic tendencies are hard for the cast to bring dignity to; although, Richard Jenkins (as Josey’s father, who waits until the last minute to show any kind of support for his daughter) makes a valiant effort that almost works.

As a film, North Country is no great addition to its genre. But it will be worth celebrating if it silences even a few blowhards whose opinions about class-action lawsuits aren’t backed up by real-world experience.

By John DeFore

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