A woman’s place
BASED ON the first sexual harassment trial of 1975, North Country highlights the shocking reality of sexual discrimination in a Minnesota iron mine. Reviewing this film in the week following an announcement by the British government that women are still being paid less than their male equivalent, makes you wonder if times have changed at all.
North Country is a well-judged film from director Niki Caro, who lends a stark edge to what could have been an over-the-top courtroom thriller. The film’s biggest success lies in inducing a sense of moral outrage in its audience in reaction to the story of mineworker Josey Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, who delivers her trademark balance of grit and vulnerability, and gives the film soul.
A victim of a teenage rape and physically abused by her husband, Josey leaves him and takes her two children to live with her parents Hank (Jenkins) and Alice (Spacek). There she runs into Glory (McDormand), an old friend and union rep at the mine. Glory earns plenty of money there and jobs at the mine are available as, after being found guilty of sexist hiring practises, it must comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling to hire women. At first, the job seems like heaven, the reality however is significantly less divine.
Josey is unprepared for the constant harassment that she and the other female miners receive from their male co-workers on a daily basis. They are tormented by groping hands, vicious pranks and physical intimidation, and risk their lives simply by going to work. To complain to the management is an impossibility.
Blasting rock is a savage business and, as tough as the women are, the masculine ethos of mining is overpowering and suffocating. Caro uses the factory’s billowing smoke, harsh wintry landscape and exploding rock as blisteringly astute metaphors – it’s a rough, bleak world and only men can tame it.
The film builds to the sexual harassment suit filed against Pearson’s mines by Josey, after she is forced to quit her job due to ill treatment and the company’s policy to do nothing to protect her. However, Caro focuses her energies on the human elements surrounding the case, particularly Josey’s relationship with her sullen teenage son, Sammy (Curtis) and her father Hank, who is so shamed by his daughter’s choice to work at the mines, he can barely look at her. It’s certainly dangerous work, but the women who toil at Pearson Iron take their jobs seriously, and do them well.
Josey quickly gets fed up with the situation and courageously takes a stand. She takes her grievances to Pearson himself, in the process making things worse for all the women. It’s not until a harrowing incident with a superior named Bobby Sharp (Renner), a former high school flame, that Josey decides enough is enough and sues the company.
Caro explores Josey’s self-righteous, selfish attitude in her quest for equal rights, as she goes against the wishes of her female workmates and embarks on a crusade against the mine.
The victor of the actual trial that North Country is based on was a lady called Lois Jensen. She won a multimillion dollar settlement, but not until it had gone through a long gruelling court battle, which changed the way firms throughout the country could treat women employees.
By LOUISE PIMM