Tuesday, July 25, 2006

North Country (DVD)

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Studio: Warner Home Video
# DVD Release Date: February 21, 2006
# Price: $19.98
# Director: Niki Caro
# Actors: Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, Frances McDormand, and more
# Rating: R

What a curious beast is the homo sapien -- of either gender. And yet at some point in our lives, if we are to be honest, haven't we all ducked behind some wall of safety, even when it means an increase to our own suffering? It is one of the more shadowy sides of human nature. We are hurt, and yet when our peers are equally hurt alongside us, we still side with an enemy rather than confront the unspeakable. History is filled to bursting with such cases.

North Country, directed by Niki Caro and starring Charlize Theron in the lead role of Josey Aimes (with a strong performance by Frances McDormand as her friend and coworker, later suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease) is based on a true story about a landmark sexual harrassment class action suit filed by a female mine worker in northern Minnesota in the late 1980s/early 90s. As the movie opens, Josey is the victim of repeated domestic violence, and at last she breaks free of a bad marriage and returns to her hometown in Minnesota with her two children to start a new life. As we put together bits and pieces of her past, we, the audience, realize this is a woman born into a mining family (her father, Hank Aimes as played by Richard Jenkins, still works in the mines and is angry when his daughter invades his territory, so to speak, and takes on work in "his" mine) and with a troubled youth. Her children have different fathers, and the community in which she grew up is not forgiving of what that implies about a young woman's choices. But she has spunk, we see that early on, because it takes courage to leave an abusive marriage, and it takes courage to stand up to a father whose approval she can't help craving, as all daughters surely do. And it takes a great deal of courage to take a job in a male-dominated field like mining.

Yet Josey doesn't necessarily strike us as being a "hero." She's not looking for a fight. She's not looking to make waves. She's a single mother trying to support her kids, buy a modest house, put food on the table. In this town, few jobs are available, but the most lucrative is mining. Why not. She's willing to work hard for a buck.

But Josey's coworkers are not so willing. The worst of human nature soon surfaces. Men at the mine resent women, citing few jobs as the cause, but it is apparent that is but an excuse for male posturing and sexual assault. One wonders how the male would behave without legal constraints to rein in his testosterone. Certainly this is a nightmare to watch. The few female miners are constantly tormented. Obscene gestures and drawings on walls are the least of their troubles. They must endure being groped and grabbed, they can't open their lockers or lunchboxes without finding, shall we say, reminders of male anatomy and its functions. At worst, they are threatened with rape. But the women endure it all, keeping brave faces to their tormentors, staying strong.

There's a different kind of strength, though, and perhaps it is the hardest to achieve. The strength required to stand up against such tormentors and say enough is enough, draw firm boundaries for acceptable behavior, and to stand alone against screaming masses -- few of us can reach that kind of heroism. North Country shows how a community works overtime to keep its ugliest secrets secret, how individuals sink into deep denial, how even friends will betray friends rather than risk sticking their necks out. Josey herself submits and submits and submits, until she can submit no more. To watch the progressing of the abuse these women must endure is painful, as it should be. To watch how the abused women themselves conspire to keep their torment hidden is most painful of all, yet that too appears in society today in various guises.

A court drama, thankfully not drawn out too long, with Woody Harrelson playing Josey's somewhat reluctant lawyer, brings the situation to a head. As another voice at long last joins Josey's in addressing the harrassment, one by one, more rise to join the chorus.

If this is not perhaps the most excellent movie I've seen in terms of script or scene or story, it is an important statement, an enlightening look at the shame of both genders when committing or enabling sexual harrassment, of a community quick to judge in order to protect one's sheltered little worlds. As the saying, paraphrased, goes, if one person anywhere must endure such abuse, we are all guilty. There are opportunities every day to speak up and speak out against the objectification of human beings, about the cruelties of one group against another. North Country is a reminder to do so. Every voice matters, if only because it gives courage to the next voice.

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