Thursday, February 02, 2006

NORTH COUNTRY - Manipulative and morally disingenuous

NORTH COUNTRY gets a lot of stuff right: the cast, shooting, editing etc are all fabulous and more power to Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand for their nominations. The minutes flew by, I spent much of the flick in tears, and I really enjoyed it. But I am deeply conflicted about the underlying message in this film and the way in which the director, Niki Caro, handles the material. I can't discuss those difficulties without revealing key plot points, so if you haven't seen the movie you should probably look away now.

The first, and by far the greater of the problems, has to do with the subject matter of this film. NORTH COUNTRY is touted as a movie about sexual harassment and the first successful class action lawsuit in the States. A group of female workers in a steel mine were subjected to degrading and violent abuse, took the company to court and won. However, the victim on whom the movie concentrates has a whole slew of problems. She was raped by her school teacher and bore his child - something she could not admit to in a small and judgmental town. Later, she suffered domestic abuse and fled her husband, taking her two small kids back to her parents. Her father disapproves of her and her mother is powerless to object. Not only is the victim, Josie Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, a victim many times over, but even her best friend is serially downtrodden. Glory, played by Frances McDormand, also experiences sexual harrassment, but she is also suffering from a debilitating illness.

When Josie decides to sue the steelworks the director makes the decision to focus on her as a victim of rape. The courtroom scenes hinge on the idea that if we believe her when she says she was raped, we will believe her when she says she was harassed. In an interview after the screening, Niki Caro, the director, claimed that this was a deliberate choice. She wanted to explore the fact that in the US judicial system (time and again, she singled out the US as being a particularly illiberal, unprotective and invasive regime) a women's sexual history is put on the line. That's true. But surely the point is that even if Josie Aimes had fucked her high school teacher, and slept with every married man in the plant, she still would not deserve to have her life threatened on the job, and would still deserve the full protection of the law. By making her whiter than white, Caro gets dangerously close to suggesting that we should sympathise with her because she is inherently good, not just because she is wronged. On the one hand, Caro wants to say that a woman's sexual history is not what is on trial; on the other, she still feels the need to prove Josie innocent of all charges of inappropriate sexual behaviour. It is for this reason that I think Erin Brokovich is a better film - at least less morally disingenuous. Erin can wear fuck-me shoes and a boob tube, and maybe even be a bad mother, but it doesn't stop her being a damn good lawyer.

A second and related criticism is of the countless ways in which the script steps over the line from epic to melodrama. Two particular occasions stand out. First, in a pivotal scene around two thirds of the way through the movie, Josie Aimes goes to speak at a Steelworkers' Union meeting. Her aim is to be heard, and to try to convince some of her female co-workers to fight the case with her. What happens is that the steelworkers shout her down, and her father, who has previously been dead against her, stands up, goes to the podium, takes the microphone from her, and speaks, eloquently, in his daughter's favour for the first time. I had a number of problems with this scene - it appeared unconvincing that the father would have a sudden shock conversion. Another member of the audience said that she found the scene frustrating because the father was also denying Niki a voice - wresting the microphone from her, underlining the fact that only a man can be heard*. Either way, the scene is one of those Hollywood melo-dramatic moments, where a sudden rush of eloquence silences a room.

The second really melo-dramatic moment occurs about five minutes before the end of the film during a court-room scene, where the truth of the rape has just been revealed and suddenly other female co-workers stand up to become part of the class action law-suit. This is particularly ludicrous and blatantly manipulative when the chronically ill sidekick has to tap her objections on her wheelchair. I like to call this the "I am Spartacus" moment, or if you prefer a more recent movie reference, the "Oh Captain, my captain" moment. It is the moment when the movie simply jumped the shark.

NORTH COUNTRY premiered at Toronto 2005 and is on release in the US. It goes on release in the UK on Friday 3rd February, in Germany on the 9th Feb., in Austria on the 10th Feb. and in France on the 8th March 2006.

*Niki Caro replied by saying that while that particular audience member may have found it unsatisfying, she knew plenty of people who did find it satisfying. The implication was that the audience member was simply wrong. Now I know that I can be strident in my views on flicks, but I always know that everyone has the right to their own reaction. For a Director to simply tell you that you are wrong and she is right - that there is only one valid way to experience and interpret a film - is a massive and unprovable philosophical claim - not to mention massively offensive. I can honestly say that in all my years of seeing directors and actors present their work to the NFT, I have never seen any couple as dismissive of their audience (and indeed, in another comment too long to go into here, of their peers) as Theron and Caro.


  1. You should review Whale Rider so we can all remember how good Niki Caro was before she sold her soul to Warners.

  2. It gets worse. She said she had an easy ride from Warners because "she produced good work". So, by implication, every other director who gets messed with by a studio deserves it because their work is shoddy?! Welles, Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola - all these guys deserved it?! Very very angry-making.

  3. Say, did you see Four Brothers? I saw somewhere you called it "this week's piss poor remake" but no review from you. Would love to get your take on it if you have actually seen it.

  4. Hi Flint, I wasn't going to bother reviewing DVD releases that came out as movies before I started doing the blog, but I'll make an effort to do Four Brothers. From memory - it was a while back - I thought it was not so much "piss-poor" (a lazy short-hand of mine) but disappointing. Ever since Boyz'n'the hood I've been waiting for Singleton to make another stand-out work of art, but found this rather formulaic and flat. I normally love Mark Wahlberg too but found him basically playing on auto-pilot. Anyhoo, I'll try and rent this, refresh my mind, and review it. Cheers, Bina.