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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

NORTH COUNTRY (article first published : 2006-02-8)

South Africa's Charlize Theron has done it again - the beauty from Benoni has landed her second Oscar nomination, as well as Golden Globe and Bafta nods, for her sterling performance in North Country, a gritty, stirring, compelling drama, which perches on the same pedestal as Silkwood and Norma Rae in the way it champions the cause and tenacity of the female underdog that makes good.

Directed with deft understatement by Niki Caro, who crafted the wonderful Whale Rider, North Country is a film inspired by the true story of Lois Jensen, whose sexual harassment class-action lawsuit was the first in America, making history in the late 80s, more than a decade after it was first filed and more than 20 years after the problems began.

Theron plays Josey Aimes, an earthy blonde with an unfortunate mullet hairstyle, who calls quits on her marriage to a wife-beater, bundles her teen son and young daughter into a car and drives them north to icy Minnesota, her hometown.

There they temporarily shack up with Josey's mother (Sissy Spacek) and unsmiling, chauvinistic father (Six Feet Under's Richard Jenkins), the latter of whom has become increasingly cold towards his daughter, having never forgiven her for falling pregnant at a young age.

Josey sets out to try to make a better life for herself and kids, turning to tough and dirty work in the iron mines, among mostly lewd, crude, rude male co-workers, who outnumber the women 30 to one. The job in the pits brings in good money, but it's hard slog, aggravated no end by verbal, mental and physical aggravations from men, many of them sexists who view their female colleagues as taking valuable jobs way from men in a depressed society.

Slowly Josey's blood starts to boil. And when she can no longer take the humiliations, the gropings, the slander, the disgusting deposits left in locker rooms, she opts to try to put a stop to it - but meets with even more problems.

Her employer basically tells her to "shut up and take it like a man", while her equally harassed women co-workers prefer to stay mum so as to not rock the boat further and face losing their well-paid jobs. It seems only Josey's pal, the no-nonsense Glory (the great Frances McDormand, who has also been nominated for a Bafta and an Oscar), a fellow mineworker and union representative, stands with her.

And the game is on when Josey eventually coaxes help from a new friend, Bill, a former hockey star-turned-burned-out-lawyer, played with his usual boyish charm by Woody Harrelson.

Ciro's film makes for engaging and thought-provoking viewing, even if the courtroom scenes are curiously disappointing and the many scenes of male miner malevolence seem just a little too heavy-handed at times (were there no normal guys in those mines?).

Josey's back story, highlighting a traumatic moment from her teen years, adds poignancy to a strong story that packs a particularly heavy emotional punch when Josey's father addresses mineworkers during a sequence set in a union hall.

Performances are fine all round - watch, too, for Sean Bean as Glory's caring partner - and the Oscar nods are warranted, although Jenkins, as Josey's father, torn between the concerns of family and co-workers, was robbed by not being nominated in the category of best supporting actor. He is terrific here. Billy Suter




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