Dildos in lunchboxes, semen on clothing and walls daubed in human excrement. No, not Total Film's Christmas party, but a sampling of what Charlize Theron's plucky working-class heroine must cope with in Niki Caro's gritty drama. Inspired by a real-life case that helped rewrite America's prehistoric labour laws, North Country tells its stirring story of obduracy and resilience with integrity, empathy and quiet passion. All of which makes its climactic nosedive into feel-good Tinseltown formula tougher to bear.
From Norma Rae to Karen Silkwood to busty Erin Brockovich, we've always enjoyed watching women stand up for themselves in the workplace. By opening her film with Theron in the witness box before flashing back to reveal what brought her there, Caro informs us from the off that Josey Aimes is one of these lasses. No wilting wallflower, this embattled single mom takes it for as long as she can, fending off verbal, psychological and even physical abuse with a weary shrug and a sprinkling of gallows humour. And screenwriter Michael Seitzman delicately details the combination of factors (two kids, no home, a disapproving father) that would make a daily trial by fire preferable to the loss of a pay-cheque.
It's when North Country returns to the courtroom that things go awry. Having set up her epic David and Goliath battle, Caro inexplicably narrows the focus to an incident in Josey's past that, while traumatic, has little bearing on the situation at hand. Further distractions involving her stroppy teenage son further muddy the water, turning a hard-hitting look at a still-pressing issue into a mawkish and predictable tearjerker.
With Frances McDormand in fine fettle as a union rep struck down by Lou Gehrig's disease and Sean Bean shining in a rare non-villainous role, North Country is a superbly acted and, thanks to Chris Menges' widescreen photography, strikingly shot affair. It's just a shame that, on her first US outing, the acclaimed director of Whale Rider should embrace clichés almost as outdated as her antagonists' sexist attitudes.