North Country

Anyone who has ever worked with other people has witnessed or engaged in something that could be termed “sexual harassment.” Coworkers often become friendly, which means they become comfortable, which means they make remarks that, viewed objectively, could be considered a violation of the company’s sexual harassment policies. But it’s OK because the coworkers are friends and no offense is intended or taken.

“North Country” is not about that type of incident. “North Country” is about the other kind of sexual harassment, the kind that truly IS harassment (because it is unwelcome), the kind that makes the workplace hostile and frightening. “North Country” would have been a better movie if it had included some of those gray-area scenarios, the ones that could be nothing more than innocent but poorly phrased remarks, rather than making all of its offenders so clearly, undeniably out-of-line. When all the men in your workplace openly declare that they don’t think women should be allowed to work there, and reinforce that sentiment by using their own excrement to write vulgar names for females on the walls … well, there’s pretty much only one way to take that.

The film is based (loosely, I gather) on a real-life case that became the first successful class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit in America. Directed by Niki Caro (whose “Whale Rider” depicted matters of female empowerment much more gracefully), “North Country” stars Charlize Theron — all Minnesota and white trash — as Josey Aimes, a young single mother who takes a job at the iron mine where her father (Richard Jenkins) works. The year is 1990, and Pearson Mines has only been hiring women for 15 years, and only then because the Supreme Court said they had to. Josey’s immediately supervisor, a weary, mustached man named Arlen Pavich (Xander Berkeley), tells her and the other new female trainees in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t think they should be working there at all.

And then the sexual harassment begins. Not subtle stuff, either, but alarming, vulgar and degrading. The men behave like pigs, speaking crassly to the women, grabbing them, drawing obscene pictures on the walls, and spreading lies about the women’s sexual proclivities. And somehow, maddeningly, everything gets blamed on the women.

Josey’s female coworkers are used to it by now, but Josey isn’t. She just left a poisonous relationship, and she is near the point where she can’t take any more abuse. But she can’t quit, because she needs the job. The higher-ups are no more sympathetic to her case than the supervisors are, making the point that if Josey would spend as much time improving her job performance as she does complaining, everyone would be a lot happier. It eventually gets so bad that the community’s dads are telling their sons not to pass the puck to Josey’s son during hockey games.

The harassment is so flagrant that it becomes laughable. I find it hard to believe that any group of men ever behaved THIS badly in the workplace, much less that their behavior was condoned all the way up the corporate ladder, and much less that it all happened as recently as 1990. I don’t deny sexual harassment can be a real problem, or even that some of the specific events depicted here could happen. But ALL of them? You watch the film and tell me if the flurry of depraved harassment and near-rape seems believable to you.

Realistic or not, it weakens the film’s case to have the villains portrayed so one-dimensionally. Usually a film like this would include a moment or two of self-doubt, where the crusader wonders if maybe she’s making a mountain out of a molehill. But Josey experiences no such second-guessing, and the film (adapted by Michael Seitzman and Laura Leedy from Leedy and Clara Bingham’s book “Class Action”) never gives her a reason to.

Josey chooses as her lawyer one Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a local boy who studied law in New York before returning to Minnesota for reasons he is cagey about. He is one of only a handful of decent men in the town — a category that does not even include Josey’s father, at least not at first. (Sissy Spacek has a small but crucial role as Josey’s quiet, old-fashioned mother.)

So where does one look for decency in this sexist town? In the marriage of Kyle (Sean Bean) and Glory (Frances McDormand), longtime friends of Josey’s and moral support in her times of trouble. Kyle and Glory are a blue-collar, beer-drinking couple, the kind of people for whom a tender expression of love might include a few swear words. In these characters we find the mix of qualities the film is looking for: They match the traditional descriptions of husband and wife, but Kyle is also sensitive and Glory is also strong. It’s the only color in an otherwise very black-and-white movie.

B- (2 hrs., 6 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity and sexual vulgarity, brief strong sexuality, a little violence.)