lkThe issue film seems to have been relegated to TV for the last few years, but every now and then one rears its head and lumbers to the Academy Awards – The Insider, or Erin Brockovich or Boys Don’t Cry. For 2005 it’s North Country, a fictioned up version of true events that led up to the first class action sexual harassment suit in history.

In Northern Minnesota there’s not much to do but mine and drink. Oscar-winner Charlize Theron is a woman who has just left her abusive husband and moved back with her parents (in case you want to know the kind of family she comes from, her father wonders what she said to deserve getting smacked around. And her mother is Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek). She’s unemployed and has two kids, and on the recommendation of a good friend, played by Oscar-winner (you see where this is going?) France McDormand, gets a job up at one of the local mines.

The thing is that the mines only recently starting hiring women due to a Supreme Court ruling, and the men – including Theron’s dad (the ghost dad from Six Feet Under) – are really unhappy about the women coming to work with them. The mine is a hotbed of harassment, and everyone just seems to accept it. But slowly and surely, things begin to escalate. The men begin waging a war of terror on the women, writing “cunt” on their locker room door in shit and jizzing on their clothes.

After a complaint to the head office goes unheeded, Charlize recruits local nice-guy disillusioned lawyer Woody Harrelson to represent her in a suit against the mine. If they can get the other women to get in on the suit, they’ll make history and have a better chance of winning the case, since the opposing side in these sort of suits try to paint the complainant as a slut. There’s strength in numbers.

And to some extent there’s plotting by the numbers. But it’s a testament to director Niki Caro and her stellar cast that the film manages to keep itself far above movie of the week territory. There are moments where you have to say to yourself, ‘Are you kidding me?’ – like when McDormand gets Lou Gehrig’s and begins to waste away – but the film, like its protagonist, keeps overcoming the odds.

Niki Caro proved that she was a master of the female empowerment film with 2002’s Whale Rider, a favorite movie of mine from this decade. But North Country is inherently a much darker story than that, even if she’s unwilling to go as dark at the end as she needs to (by the finale of the film it’s only the corporation who is truly bad – the miners have all seen the error of their ways, it seems. It’s one part of an overall disappointing conclusion that I’ll talk about later). In Whale Rider she was able to recreate the specifics of modern Maori life in a completely accessible way; she does the same here with Minnesota, and more interestingly, with the harassment. A film about sexual harassment may seem a tough sell in these post-Irreversible times; after all, harassment by definition never rises to the level of assault or rape. But Caro is able to create a darkly malevolent atmosphere, and even to create a level of uncertainty as to the outcome, which is pretty amazing since you have to know that Theron wins, since this is a Hollywood movie.

It’s no surprise that North Country is filled to the gill with amazing performances. The movie is worth checking out just for the two lead actresses, and also for trying to figure out just where in the world Sean Bean’s accent is supposed to be from.

Theron puts in a ‘Seriously, I deserved that Oscar’ performance here. Her accent is great, and what’s even better is her willingness to play her character as less than a saint. She’s not a terribly great mom, it turns out, and while that exists on one level to add dramatic tension in the story (her own son turns against her when she sues the mine), it also humanizes her. It’s just too unbelievable to imagine a single mom with two kids working a tough job coming home and being the female half of Ozzie and Harriet. And I should know, since I was raised by a single mom.

Out of the troika of Oscar winning femmes here, Sissy Spacek mostly disappears into the wintry landscape, but that’s more than made up for by Frances McDormand’s pushing to the edges of nomination territory at all costs role. Fargo accent? Check. Brave woman who lets down her friend but comes around in the end in a tearful moment? Check. Gets a horrible wasting disease and spends the length of the movie falling apart? Big check. Huge check. Weirdly, this illustrates one of the problems of these fictionalized films – the McDormand character is real, and in real life even more dramatic (she showed up to a court hearing in her hospital bed). But onscreen she just seems over the top, another element added to guarantee you’re reaching for the hankie at the end. It takes everything that McDormand has to keep her character on this side of real, and by the end of the movie you’re left wondering if maybe we shouldn’t have spent more time with her.

Where Caro loses the film, and where it just misses out on being up there with the best issue films, is the ending. She’s unwilling to paint the miners as bad, which is a cop out. Sure, the environment of the mining company allowed this stuff to happen, but it wasn’t like the CEO handed out leaflets on how to torment people. The miners are dark, and possibly bad people. That’s something to examine, and the movie almost does in a big union meeting where it’s brought up that these women are the miner’s wives and daughters and sisters. That thread is dropped, though, in favor of a number of weepy aspects that drive the ending to saccharine heights.

There’s Theron and her son – you know they have to reconcile. There’s a last minute reveal of a long hidden rape. There’s Frances McDormand having a hole drilled in her throat to breathe. There’s not one but two scenes of people tearfully coming to the side of good in public settings. And there’s an extended and hokey courtroom finale that any casual viewer of Law & Order will know would result in nothing less than a mistrial.

But still, even with these problems, Caro has crafted a fine – possibly great – film. It’s a story that you can really feel good about, and it’s a film that can make you have just a little faith that the system we live with isn’t completely fucked. And these days we need a little faith in that. North Country is also magnificently shot – again, like Whale Rider, Caro understands that the environment is just as important to who these people are as their accents and their customs. Scored to a succession of Bob Dylan songs (he’s a Minnesota boy himself), Caro’s mining country is a blasted land of battered beauty.

Niki Caro is one of the brightest and best directors working out there, and I hope that her next film tackles some of the darkness at the edges of North Country and doesn’t flinch. It’s nice to believe that at the end we’ll ride the whale and grandpa will change his mind, or we’ll make a stand in court and the scumbag harassers will see things our way, but that’s just not how it happens. I like that there are movies that allow me to have those happy endings, but I think Caro can do more than that.

8.9 out of 10