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Improper Conduct 

'North Country' is a powerful film about sexual harassment

Director Niki Caro and her crew have made North Country as if it were cinema's only chance to accurately and definitively depict the horrors of sexual harassment at the workplace. In a world where moviegoers are more likely to fork out for the sight of things blowing up than the unpleasant reality of women's past and current hardships, Caro goes all or nothing with her picture. The result will probably stand for some time as the most important and effective movie made on this subject. Let's face it ... other studios are probably not rushing to cover this subject.

Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, who takes a job at an iron mine after splitting from her husband and becoming the sole provider to their two children. Shortly after punching her first time card, Josey finds herself the victim of male leering and crass remarks. The harassment of Josey and other female coworkers intensifies to the point where Josey quits her job and sues the mining company.

The film takes some of its story from the book Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. The case depicted in the movie has a few comparisons to the book but, for the most part it's a fictional account of Jenson v. Eveleth Mines. Readers of this book will find many differences between actual history and what is depicted in this film. In reality, the case against the mining company was drawn out over many years, with many different law firms and lawyers squaring off, and an eventual finale not nearly as dramatic as the overdone closing moments of North Country.

Yes, the movie is history-inspired fiction, but many of the horrific acts by men against women in this film actually occurred. This is a very graphic movie, unrelenting in its depiction of cruelty. Names have been changed, many facets of the story have been sped up to fit within a two-hour movie, but the underlying story of a woman's triumph over a misogynistic and flawed employer and judicial system endures.

Theron is, once again, Oscar-worthy in the lead role. There are some very heavy moments in this film, and Theron handles every one of them with realistic choices. A scene in which Josey must tell her son the truth about his father is one of the film's many genuine moments, sensitively written and superbly acted.

Playing a sort of composite character based on the lawyers who tried the Jenson case, Woody Harrelson does his best work in years as Bill White. Frances McDormand's character, Glory, is loosely based on real-life plaintiff Pat Kosmach, who died of Lou Gherig's disease before the case was completed. McDormand's character also suffers from the disease, but makes a triumphant appearance in the final courtroom scene that abruptly ends the film. Strangely, the movie depicts Glory as a holdout unwilling to join the case. In truth, Kosmach always stood beside Lois Jenson (the person Theron's character is based on) and was one of the stalwarts in a case from which many women had to drop out due to fear, stress and pressure.

Dramatic license has been taken with the subject, and it has resulted in a tight, moving film that pays tribute to the women who took a stand. It's sad to know that the real-life protagonist of the story received relatively small damages for the hell she was put through, and suffered many physical and mental side effects the film does not depict.

North Country is often an ugly, sickening movie, as well it should be. Thankfully, it will also raise awareness of its subject. For those who find the film intriguing, pick up the book for the real story. This is a very good movie, but the actual events are mind-boggling.

North Country
Rated NR

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