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Steely determination


By Bruce Newman
Mercury News

IN 1997, A FEDERAL appellate judge recalibrated the standard for sexual harassment in the American workplace, upholding a class action lawsuit by a group of female workers against Eveleth Mines of Minnesota. ``North Country'' files an emotional appeal on behalf of the plaintiffs in that case that is mostly satisfying, although at times the movie seems more interested in launching its own Oscar campaign than in mining the story's true complexity.

Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, who returns to her hometown in northern Minnesota's Iron Range sporting a shiner she got from the husband she has just left. Her father (Richard Jenkins of ``Six Feet Under'') suspects she had it coming and tips the long neck of his beer when someone theorizes that her husband ``was probably on a bender when he did it.''

Josey's dad has spent his whole life in the mine, so when she tells him the only way she can earn a decent living for her two kids is by joining his daily descent into that pit of hell, Hank is incredulous. ``You want to be a lesbian now?'' he asks.

Gender diversity hit the Minnesota mining range like a ton of chauvinist pig iron in the mid-'70s. At the time ``North Country'' picks up the story in 1989, female miners are outnumbered by men 30-to-1. The movie lays claim to being the ``true story'' of these pioneering women, and yet by adding a wholly fictitious subplot about sexual battery to a story about sexual harassment, it labors harder than any picture since ``The Passion of the Christ'' to manipulate emotions.

Josey is the martyr whose reputation must be crucified -- first in the filthy mine where she works, then in the courtroom to which she turns for judicial relief -- to pay for all our sins. But in creating this fictionalized proto-saint, Warner Bros. has taken a strangely Stalinist approach to Lois Jenson, the original plaintiff in the case and the model for Theron's character. The studio's press notes even falsify the title of the book upon which the picture is based, dropping her name from ``Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law'' as if she never existed.

And there are other odd incongruities. As Josey's difficulties unfold, director Niki Caro twice cuts to televisions carrying Anita Hill's testimony during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Hill brought her explosive charges of Thomas' alleged sexual harassment before the U.S. Senate in late 1991, which would be two years after the female miners' unpleasant encounter with a character listed in the movie's closing credits only as ``Semen Guy.''

None of this is supposed to matter. ``North Country'' is a fictionalized account of a plaintiff who didn't exist (except she did), fighting injustice in lock step with Anita Hill (except she isn't), that seeks to extract from Josey's grit some trace element of uplift.

By disarranging events and giving their heroine a dark secret that could scuttle her court case, the filmmakers signal that a ``Norma Rae'' ending is on the way. And it should be lost on no one that Sally Field won a best-actress Oscar for her performance as the defiant labor organizer in that 1979 film.

Monstrous men

Except for a couple of designated good guys (among them a miner's husband played by Sean Bean and a lawyer played by Woody Harrelson), the men in the movie are all otherworldly creatures, with slithering tongues, bulging eyes and vile mouths. They scrawl sexual obscenities on the walls of the women's changing room and put sex toys in their lunchboxes, and one of them physically assaults Josey. The men justify their scorn as a concern for safety (``Somebody's gonna get killed because of those women!'') and jobs, which are disappearing overseas. Josey's boss is so exasperated that women would steal jobs from men that, when she comes to him to report a case of harassment, he advises her to ``take it like a man.''

Marge, is that you?

Among the women better equipped to do that are Josey's truck driver friend Glory, played by Frances McDormand, making an unexpected return to the state -- and the accent -- that helped her win an Oscar for ``Fargo.'' Glory isn't overtly feminine, but she's married to a man of such delicate sensibilities that he tinkers with vintage wristwatches. The least sympathetic characters among Josey's cohort are Big Betty and Peg, whose looks and behavior are masculinized. It's hard to know whether their resentment of Josey is honestly earned, or just jealousy of her good looks.

Theron has once again deglamorized herself for a meaty dramatic role, and she gives a persuasive performance that surely will not be overlooked during the coming award season. But ``North Country'' has the perverse effect of making you wonder why she would ever want to give up being a gorgeous movie star for a cruddy job like this.

`North Country'
Rated: R (sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, profanity)

Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Richard Jenkins

Director: Niki Caro

Writer: Michael Seitzman, based on the book ``Class Action: The (Story of Lois Jenson and the) Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law'' by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

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