Jeremy Renner and Charlize Theron in North Country (2005)

Honored with two Academy Award nominations in 2006, North Country finally worked its way to the top of my Netflix queue recently. It was a pretty good rental.

You’ve probably seen stories similar to this one a number of times. The woman-in-a-hostile-workplace, inspired-by-a-true-story plot echoes films like Norma Rae (1979) and Silkwood (1983). A one-employer Minnesota town was also disrupted in the excellent documentary American Dream (1990), and Erin Brockovich (2000) took her fight to the corporate man before this.

Still, North Country, based on the story of the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States (Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.), has a richness of detail and depth of performance that go beyond run-of-the-mill, fight-the-power, made-for-TV choreography. Its depiction of small town Minnesota life in 1989 is relatively solid, the interplay of its characters fairly engaging.

Charlize Theron stars as Josey Aimes, a single parent who takes a job with a giant mining company, incurring the animosity of the overwhelmingly male miners, the town in general, and her own father, who is a miner himself. Theron’s movie star beauty does not square with these surroundings, but her performance helps us overlook it.

Frances McDormand in North Country (2005)Frances McDormand (pictured) plays Josey’s mentor Glory, a union rep and truck driver at the mine who has carved out her own respected place amongst the men. At first sight, you can’t help but recall McDormand’s Oscar-winning role in Fargo (1996), but you soon get over that also as she creates yet another memorable character.

The movie’s storyline is obvious, its surprises are not all that surprising, and some of the characters lack dimension. Josey’s father, for example, played by Richard Jenkins, is a brick wall of bitterness until his moving moment late in the film. The main creep harrassing Josey, played by Jeremy Renner, is a generic creep.

Woody Harrelson in North Country (2005)Woody Harrelson, however, is nicely understated as a former local hockey star turned attorney returning after a failed marriage in New York. His first attempt at chatting up Josey is one of the many little touches that make North Country worthwhile. There are also a good many Bob Dylan songs in the soundtrack.

Niki Caro, whose previous movie, The Whale Rider (2002), I especially enjoyed, has not made celluloid art here, but she has crafted a satisfying, quality version of a fairly standard type of story. I’ve given it a positive 4 out of 5 stars at Netflix.

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