Cinema Signal:

Women In the Mines:
Stories of Life and Work

. "North Country"

It has, after all, been 26 years since Sally Field fought the union wars in "Norma Rae," an extraordinarily successful drama about a textile worker, a single mother, in danger of being alone in standing up to corporate powers. This film, directed by a power woman director, Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), tracks very much in the footsteps of its predecessor with a concentration on gender battles in the workplaces of America during the 80s.

To avoid further battering by a brutal husband, Josie Aimes (Charlize Theron) piles her belongings, older son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and young daughter Karen (Elizabeth Peterson) into her pickup and heads home to northern Minnesota and her parents, Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek). Dad's a miner in an iron mining town who is none too proud of a daughter with two kids by different fathers. Mom is far more forgiving.

Josie's old pal Glory (Frances McDormand) is not only one of the rare women working at the mine, but a union rep looking out for the interests and the acceptance of several female comrades who have dared to invade the male dominated pit. The reason, of course, is the pay. There's no other job in town where you can earn a living wage, especially when you've got two dependent mouths to feed. Josie applies and gets a job.

The men of the mine, from the bottom on up, are aggressively hostile. No subtlety about it. Their methods to deter any idea of equality includes every tasteless insult they can think up, sexual intimidation, ridicule, and every opportunity to demean and threaten their unwanted co-workers. Disrespect would hardly sum it up.

Josie fights back, by trying to maintain herself in her job, by bringing her complaints to her completely unsupportive manager, to the owner of the mine, himself, realizing, in the end, that there are no friends in high places.

Josie meets Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a local ex-hockey star who went to the big city to become a lawyer. When White learns of the mine worker problems from pal Kyle (Sean Bean), one of the few decent men of the town, he has no intention of taking it on as a case, even if Josie is the prettiest girl in town. But insults and dangers mount, and he leads a legal battle to make it a class action suit brought on behalf of all the female workers. If won, the assumed male workplace in America will never be the same.

Continuing her work in deep character roles, Theron again foregoes glamorization, as she most certainly did in order to physically suggest Alice Wuornos in "Monster." But that doesn't translate into ugly, and though she indeed gets messed up here at times, there's no great attempt to mask her inherent beauty, either. It's her pretty girl looks, in fact, that makes her character the special target of heavy breathing, lowlife men the vulnerable object of their desperate methods of turf protection.

Theron absorbs herself completely in capturing the spirit and determination driving her character's uncompromising pursuit of fair play.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent and production credits, led by the gritty, superb camerawork of cinematographer Chris Menges, gives a fine feel for the dirt of the pit and the earthy realities of a town on the edges of survival. With a face like Theron's, and Menges' light, a big part of the art shows up on her closeups.

If I didn't know there was anything good about the movie, I would have paid admission for the soundtrack, loaded as it is with Bob Dylan. This came to me as a welcome surprise. He sings some newly composed songs for the film, most interestingly "Tell Ol' Bill," a few powerful old ones, and a typically masterful "Paths of Victory" performed by Cat Power. Who better than Dylan to support the theme of injustice and rising above abuse?

The film, revisiting social injustice, is not unpredictable. But, it is a worthy effort in its updated revival of "Norma Rae."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Charlize Theron
a miner marching into a vindictive atmosphere
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