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Charlize Theron in 'North Country'

There's no place like home
by Mark Anderson

here's no place like home, which isn't necessarily such a good thing.

That's especially true in the case of "North Country," a recent Hollywood movie about sexual harassment in the taconite-mining region of northern Minnesota – a 100-mile swath of woods and lakes called the Mesabi Iron Range and home to Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, Kevin McHale, Moonlight Graham, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame ... and me.

Home on the Range: Charlize Theron stars as the hardscrabble hometown beauty who takes advantage of a 1975 federal ruling that forces companies to give high-paying mining jobs to women.

Last winter, three best-actress winners – Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand and Sissy Spacek – converged on my hometown of Virginia to film the fictional composite of a landmark real-life situation.

Theron stars as Josey, who takes advantage of a 1975 federal ruling that forces companies to give high-paying mining jobs to women. Josey joins a small band of lady pioneers hired as laborers during a downturned economy.

To say that the men (and their wives) are resentful is to put things mildly. In an ongoing effort to intimidate the women into quitting, many of the men are lewd, crude, rude and often much, much worse.

On the job or off, there's little escape in such a close-knit one-industry town. Even those who side with Josey – including sympathetic coworkers of both sexes – keep quiet and won't rock the boat.

We join the story with Josey living elsewhere. Her man has just beaten her, she grabs both kids, tosses a few suitcases into the back of a pickup and hits the highway – headed for mom and dad's place, where she hopes to start anew. But if you're thinking she'll find pixie dust and moonbeams, well, you haven't been to very many movies.

Josey, a hardscrabble hometown beauty who got knocked up in high school, still brings her family shame, even a decade later. A lowly gig at the beauty salon barely pays the bills, while she and the kids need a place of their own. Josey briefly resists the inevitible, then lets herself get talked into applying at the mine by a female friend who makes a good living driving one of the massive trucks.

Taking a stand: Theron's Josey speaks up at the union meeting.

Oh, there are a few surprises along the way. And Theron does not portray uninteresting women. But "North Country" is not a great movie. It's not even particularly good. Barely good enough is more like it, which is too bad, because the music and performances are especially strong.

Most of the songs are by Dylan and Theron is an A-list movie star who can act. Woody Harrelson is solid as the hockey-pro-turned-lawyer, a decent guy who's looking out for himself. Spacek is convincing as Josey's mom. And, as Josey's friend, McDormand brings her famous "Fargo" accent to a city of 12,450 people a mere 90 miles south of the border where dey talk like diss.

Wrap all that around the sophomore effort of Niki Caro, director of "Whale Rider," the charming 2003 art-house champion of female empowerment, and high hopes are easy to have. But by the end of "North Country" we've seen too much contrivance and cliché, too little nuance and next to nothing original.

Josey's son loves hockey but hates Josey for the cloak of slatternly reputation she still seems to wear. Josey's old classmate becomes the testosterone-spewing coworker. Josey and Harrelson's character stir up a few sparks – he doesn't, then does seem interested in her; he won't, then will take the harassment case. Josey's dad carries a man-sized grudge.

"She had a baby," says Josey's mom to the unforgiving father. "She didn't rob a bank."

Pretty good line, but by this point the movie is dragging. Meanwhile, ample use of helicopter photography is a great idea. But even with that, shots of snowy New Mexico desert are often inexplicably substituted for the real thing (maybe the mines wouldn't grant the moviemakers the permission?). Regardless, the movie never manages to capture the epic scope of the mines – much less the complex melting pot of people.

Not too cool for school: Local lore says the Virginia High School hockey team taught Woody Harrelson to skate.

And despite (or maybe because of) the fact that deep emotions are tapped at nearly every turn, "North Country" comes off more like a made-for-TV movie than a true-to-life work of art.

The actual case was resolved in the late '90s, a quarter century after the original hirings began. The mines had millions to spend on the fight and the protracted litigation was as brutal as the treatment by coworkers, but the movie's courtroom scenes are mostly sluggish and long. ("North Country" is loosely based on a book, "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law," by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler.)

Fittingly, northern Minnesota can be a harsh, frigid wilderness with temperatures of minus-30 for days at a time and snowdrifts the size of a bus, then insanely hot and humid come summer. Drinking is a right of birth, cussing is art and mosquito is the state bird.

Yet those hellish mines allowed generations to make serious salaries with money left over for bars, boats, snowmobiles, wide-screen TVs and plenty of cigarettes. Every other Iron Ranger owns the requisite lake cabin. Hunting and fishing are religion. Mine paychecks have sent countless kids off to college. Add in a low cost of living and the attraction is easy to see.

But then there's the darker side: alcoholism, racism (a significant American Indian population), monotony on the job and a longstanding, overwhelming blind eye to civil, gay and women's rights. Of course, none of those traits are exclusive to the Iron Range.

Playing the game: McDormand (left) and Theron take in some hockey.

As for taconite, it got turned into cheap steel and, long after the thriving timber industry of the 1800s died down, continued to make the Range a prime place for supporting families.

But then we began to use more plastic and the end of the Vietnam era meant fewer tanks to build. Plus, high-quality Japanese steel became ever cheaper to import. Many of the jobs withered away and Virginia no longer supports 12,450 people.

Enter women's empowerment, a worthy cause on the Iron Range, in the Middle East or anywhere else. But mere recognition of a problem doesn't guarantee progress. Attitudes passed down through generations don't just fade away.

There were more than two dozen bars on a five-block mainstreet in Virginia throughout most of the '70s and '80s. Eveleth, a funky little town two miles down the road, seemed to have twice as many. Other towns with their endless bars are a few miles in any direction – Chisholm, Hibbing, Grand Rapids, Aurora-Hoyt Lakes. Gilbert was known as Little Chicago less than a century ago. Each maintains its own rowdy flavor with a massive man-made hole in the ground at every other turn.

No big deal: The Mesabi Mine near Hibbing.

Back when I was seven, the family took a road trip: down to Iowa, over to Las Vegas, then on to Disneyland before reaching the Grand Canyon, where we parked the car, walked to the edge, looked down for a minute or two, then headed back to the car. Nobody said a word. No big deal. Just like home.

A "joke" from my youth took aim at explaining the real lay of the land: The Iron Range is where men are men and so are half the women.

I left a downtown Portland theater the day the movie opened, a little ashamed of my gender, my homeland and my planet – and was reminded of the joke. If it ever seemed funny, it no longer did.

Fitting that a place capable of such brutal misogyny is where modern sexual-harassment law evolved. More than a few full-fledged Joseys live up there; that part rings true. It's a story that should be told, retold and retold again. But a worthy story doesn't guarantee a great movie.

"North Country" is a small step in the right direction when it could have been a giant-sized leap.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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