Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich ' it was time for another movie about a woman who, against the odds and against her own better judgment, takes on an entire industry. Actually, it's always time for a movie like that, if done properly. But I wonder whether Josey Aimes, the courageous miner played by Charlize Theron in Niki Caro's North Country, will join that select group of holy crusaders. Is she memorable enough? Thanks in part to career-defining performances by Sally Field, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, the other three were supremely complicated women who had greatness thrust upon them. Aimes, in comparison, is Polly Purebred, destined to leave her mark on the ravaged landscape of northern Minnesota. Theron does manage to get inside this "average" woman, but her career-defining performance was in Monster, where she played a supremely complicated serial killer.
North Country is "inspired by," rather than "based upon," the book Class Action: The Lois Jenson Story and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. And a funny thing has happened in the transition from page to screen: All the abuse (and there was a ton of it) heaped upon the women who worked at Eveleth Mines now seems like overkill. You simply can't believe that all that stuff happened, even though it did. When the federal government mandated that the mining companies start hiring women, it brought out the worst in the men, who'd had the mines all to themselves for generations. They called the women names. They engaged in sexual innuendo. They touched them inappropriately. They threatened to rape them. They waved dildos in their faces. They dropped their pants. One of them even snuck into the women's locker room and ejaculated on the clothes of a woman who'd rejected him.
How do you portray ' with all the compression drama demands ' such a hostile environment without seeming to exaggerate things? North Country hasn't really found the answer to that question, nor has it figured out how to bring a sense of proportion to Aimes' life outside the mines. Josey Aimes is only loosely based on Lois Jenson; otherwise, she seems closer to Norma Rae and Karen Silkwood, a responsible mother with a bit of a wild streak. But there seems to be nowhere for her to turn, least of all her family. Early on, when she shows up back home, two kids in tow, having left her physically abusive husband, the first words out of her father's mouth are like another slap in the face: "He catch you with another woman?" Then, when she decides to take a job at the mine, which pays six times what she'd make anywhere else, he poses a rhetorical question: "You want to be a lesbian now?"
Meanwhile, on a television in the background, Anita Hill is telling the Senate Judiciary Committee about Coke cans and pubic hairs, a last-minute attempt to derail Clarence Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, which prompts Aimes' mother (an emphatically mousy Sissy Spacek) to lament the damage done to "that poor man's family." North Country sets Aimes up as the Anita Hill of the Iron Range, a woman who risks everything so that other women might not have to hear about the exploits of Long Dong Silver. And when she winds up in court, the company lawyers employ the same nuts-and-sluts strategy, abusing her all over again. From the first day she showed up at the mine, labor and management had closed ranks against her, but Karl Marx himself might not have foreseen that the other women she worked with, afraid of losing their jobs, would also turn their backs on her.
Did I mention that her son calls her a whore? North Country puts Josey Aimes through such a wringer that you have to remind yourself how much more of a wringer Lois Jenson went through. Her court battles lasted for two decades, and although she won a great legal victory, establishing the right of women to file class-action lawsuits against companies that may have allowed sexual harassment, it took an enormous toll on her. Aimes, on the other hand, is rewarded with one of those climactic courtroom scenes that should result in a director's dramatic license being revoked. And she comes out the other side looking like a million bucks ' or however many millions Theron got to play the role. Obviously, Josey Aimes shouldn't have to lay down her life to qualify as a true-blue heroine, but that's pretty much what Lois Jenson did. Here's hoping she at least likes the movie.