Biopics, of some sort or another, are nothing new. Many are extraordinary as they reveal so much we either didn’t know or had forgotten. Sometimes the subject seems puzzling, but many others allow us to hold up those that would otherwise go unnoticed and be the unsung heroes of a particular part of history. They are thus able to be a bit more than footnotes in history.
The Warner Bros. Pictures film “North Country”, is still as powerful as ever and shows why film is a good medium to bring attention to those that have made a difference.
This drama film stars Charlize Theron (“Dark Places”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), Frances McDormand (upcoming “The Good Dinosaur”, “Olive Kitteridge”), Sean Bean (upcoming projects “Legends”, “The Martian”), Richard Jenkins (“Olive Kitteridge”, “Lullaby”), Jeremy Renner (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), Michelle Monaghan (“Pixels”, “The Best of Me”), Thomas Curtis (“Freeway Killer”, “While the Children Sleep”), Woody Harrelson (upcoming “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2”, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I”), and Sissy Spacek (“Bloodline”, “Deadfall”).
The film was directed by Niki Caro (“McFarland, USA”, “A Heavenly Vintage”) and written by Michael Seitzman (upcoming series “Code Black”, “Intelligence”). It is inspired by the book “Class Action: The story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law” by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler.
The film originally opened on Oct. 21, 2005. It would go on to be nominated for two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards among several other nominations and wins.
One post wasn’t enough for this month’s Argumentative August blogathon, so here we are, time for another one. This time, however, I’ve chosen one that really does fit the description used to inspire this event. The announcement for this stated that this will be about the “50 best courtroom dramas ever filmed (according to GamesRadar).” Many of the films chosen are not bad choices, and easy to see how and why they ended up on the list, unless you’ve managed to miss seeing them. But going beyond this categorization, is this film any good as a legal drama or drama in general? Let’s find out.
This is a film about sexual harassment. It’s about other things too, but it’s mostly about sexual harassment that many women had to endure whilst working at a mine. The women that go to work in the mines are not welcome at all, even after they show time and again that they’re quite capable.
The sexual harassment depicted in this film is really tough to watch. I saw this film some time ago and knew that it was good and well done, with strong performances, but I’d essentially forgotten that. When I was watching this, of course, I got upset and bothered by what I saw. It didn’t take long for the film to start showcasing the types of harassment these women had to go through. Most of it, at first, was all just verbal sexual harassment and absolutely cringeworthy. Horrible and difficult to hear, but from a film standpoint, easy enough to get through. However, as this film’s recounting a long period of sexual harassment for the women that worked in this mine (name was changed), it was going to have to escalate. And escalate it did. The situations stayed verbal but eventually included more physical harassment and assaults. Situations that could’ve gotten someone hurt. One incident, of so many, that just sickened me was when Monaghan’s character is in the portable restroom and some of her male co-workers decided to rock it back and forth until it was time to fully tip the facility over. I think I sat for a few minutes in shock and disgust. The fact that this could happen to someone and nobody really bats an eye is despicable.
While the sexual harassment is difficult to watch, and even harder yet when Theron’s male superior’s and co-workers ignore her and call her a liar, it’s all presented in an impactful way because of the various actors and what they bring to the roles and the film. Each actor, even if they’re the despicable male characters doing the harassing or the ignoring, are in fine form. There’s never a moment I’m not moved in some way by what the actors are doing.
For Theron it’s the simple fact that she’s a single mother with two children, leaving her abusive husband at the beginning of the film, and only wants to make a life for her and her kids. Not much to ask for. However, her homecoming as we soon learn is not a happy one. There’s always family drama, and in this case it’s from Theron’s past. It plays out a lot in this film and shows why she can’t get along with her dad (Jenkins). Of course, things aren’t made better by the views that her mother (Spacek) holds herself. A product of the time, it’s sad to say. You want too dislike Spacek, and Jenkins at times too, but they’re operating off of societal norms. You don’t have to like it, but it’s easy, for a time, too understand it. Spacek doesn’t agree Theron should be working in the mines and neither does Jenkins. But Theron pushes forward on all fronts and it’s some of the best work I’ve seen her do, even now.
McDormand, like Theron, is alive in this role and brings so much. She’s tough when need be, fun, and unfortunately, someone that’s put in a difficult health crisis. It turns out she’s got a serious disease, which is in part why you feel for her in the end. While she does have to struggle and fight through this illness, she also has to fight to regain any semblance of who she was before her health took a major hit. I was surprised by how easily I was still able to like her, even after it seemed she had absolutely no fight left and had abandoned Theron, but that’s purely because of the way McDormand played this woman. I said she was fun and she is. I almost forgot. The chemistry she has with Bean only cements the reasons why you like her so much. From beginning to end every time they were together it was a one two punch of some sort. Happiness, joy, sadness all on display and each one being more effective than the last. I guess this is how you know a character’s been really well realized.
Not to undercut the other women in this film, as they too have moments that humanize them and make you like them, but they’re mainly there to depict the sexual harassment. That being said, it’s because of the early stuff in the film, the fun bar experiences, the sitting together during lunch, that you actually like and care for them. The fact that they later want to let Theron charge ahead alone isn’t relevant. They’re being harassed and that’s horrible and sad and difficult to watch, so you’re going to sympathize with them right away. They’re part of why the events depicted can affect you so much.
All the despicable male characters in this film are just that, despicable. The actors do their jobs and make us hate them. While these actors, like the other women, are here to be the vile antagonists, they achieve this and then some. While many of these actors are seemingly unknown (at least to me), this shows that they do know what they’re doing. Renner especially stands out. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him in something where he actually has to act. Where he has to seemingly put in some actual hard work. His character may be a snake, but he does it so well that even when he fesses up to being a liar, it doesn’t suddenly give him a redemptive quality. He’s long past that.
When Theron, after stomaching so much, and being shut down time and again, even by her female co-workers, decides it’s time to take this matter to court, it’s not exactly a fun exercise. When the film opens with the eventual court case already going, you can see pretty well just how much of a toll it’s all taking. Add in all the questions from Linda Emond (“Jenny’s Wedding”, “Law & Order: SVU”), the lawyer for the mining company, is asking about Theron’s past and her kids, it’s just saddening. The film from that point on weaves back and forth between the past and present until everything finally catches up and it’s all about Theron convincing people that what’s going on in the mine, isn’t right and that the company should pay for allowing this sexual harassment to happen. I was surprised by how well this form of storytelling worked. I’ve seen other instances in film and television where the writer or writers tries this and it fails miserably. I’m also not a fan of stories being told in this back and forth flashback narrative as it tends to throw off the momentum of the given film or show. There was none of that here. What was shown, slowly and in one revelatory manner, only deepened my disgust as well as my want to know more and discover the truth. Even this time around I found myself getting worked up enough that I couldn’t stop watching. I had to know what happened next.
As far as the actual courtroom scenes go, which make this film a pretty good choice for this blogathon, they were as intense and dramatic as they should be. Everything that was built up through out the film was able to finally come out in full effect. Whether it’s Emond or Harrelson asking the questions, or Theron or Renner being questioned, among the few we saw, it’s absolutely riveting and dramatic. There’s the raised voices, the seemingly underhanded questions or unfair ones, the answers that are meant to undercut what’s being said, and so much more that it’s almost like being in attendance and sitting in the packed gallery. All this, of course, is where we continue to see the strength of these versatile actors are able to get an even more powerful overall film because of it. If this film hadn’t before, it certainly managed this time to leave a big impression on me.
This film has more courtroom scenes than “Erin Brockovich” does, but it too is better off because it’s not overwhelmingly courtroom driven. Because you spend so much time with Theron, McDormand, and the various other women and people in their lives, you take to them. They’d probably be your friends if you knew them. The film’s emotional components come alive because you spend so much time learning about who they are. Thinking about this as a film, it’s an important one and one that’s a successful film. It worked on every level, even if that meant condensing down the time period in which this actually took place, to better accommodate a feature length film. This medium may at times seem like a lost cause, but then there are new films and older films, like this one, that remind us of the importance of film. Without it, some bits of history would truly be lost.
The powerful trailer: