'North Country' mines well-trod ground

Movies don't get much more well-meaning than "North Country," an earnest problem drama about female workers in a northern Minnesota iron mine in the late '80s.

Loosely based on facts from the book "Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law," it stars Charlize Theron as Josie, a battered wife with two children who moves back to her hometown to live with her parents (Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins) and toil in the pits. She joins a small cadre of women who have been allowed in the mines due to Supreme Court-mandated quotas.

Soon the sexual intimidation begins: obscenities are scrawled in changing rooms or shouted in public, port-a-potties are overturned while the women are inside, and much worse. Josie is no standard-bearer - she just wants to make enough money to care for her children - but the relentlessness of the harassment forces her to fight back. For a time, she's just about the only one who does.

Critics have been comparing this film to "Norma Rae" and "Silkwood," but a more apt comparison might be to "High Noon."

The best parts of "North Country" are the scenes between the female miners as they banter and let off steam. Director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), working from a script by Michael Seitzman, has a strong feeling for how women band together - and break apart. Her depiction of these women is far from doctrinaire. Some of them are as hostile to Josie's entreaties as any man. And not all the men are ogres. For starters, Josie's lawyer (Woody Harrelson) is an ex-hockey star turned Sensitive Guy while the company lawyer is a female turncoat.

But overall "North Country" is too self-consciously scaled as an anthem for the human spirit. We can spot where this movie is headed right from the beginning, and not just because Caro employs a tricky time structure that keeps flashing back from the courtroom trial. We know when we first see Josie that she is being primed for sainthood. That smudge of iron dust on her cheek is her red (make that gray) badge of courage. And we know when we meet her upstanding company boss that he will turn out to be a worm, just as we know that her disapproving father, a lifelong miner, or her angry, uncomprehending son, will eventually rally to her cause. There's even the obligatory "I am Spartacus" sequence where the workers one by one stand up to support their martyr. If it were not for Chris Menges's gravely powerful cinematography, which turns the iron mine into a living, breathing landscape, the movie would seem a lot stagier than it is. (There's a lot of Hollywood in this neck of the woods.)

As a union rep, Frances McDormand (who still has her Minnesota vowels in place from "Fargo") periodically helps relieve the righteousness, although this is the kind of movie where the character with the funniest lines is obliged to acquire a terminal illness. Harrelson does his considerable best to redeem the hackneyed role of the dreamboat do-gooder. No matter how conventional his roles may be, he always gives them a feral quality, an eccentricity, that lifts them out of the ordinary.

Theron has her best role since her Oscar-winning Monster, which isn't saying much if you've seen some of her intervening efforts, like "Head in the Clouds" (which prompted some people to call for an Oscar recall vote). Without the prosthetic makeup from "Monster," Theron's blond prettiness shines forth as usual, and Caro plays up the incongruity between the actress's runway model looks and her grimy surroundings. Perhaps she plays it up too much - Josie is transformed almost literally into a beacon of hope. Grade: B-

Rated R for sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language.

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