Sunday, 19 November 2006

North Country (2005)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 4th June 2006.

North CountryCharlize Theron is an actress I admire, and I thought she thoroughly deserved her oscar for Monster, so I was looking forward to her new film North Country, which gets a very speedy release on DVD (out tomorrow in the UK).

The critics were not enthusiastic about this movie when it was theatrically released a month or two back, and, unfortunately, I think they pretty much got it right.

The film tells the story of a 'sexual harrassment' class action case brought by women who worked as miners in a small community based in Minnesota, and although many of the reviews had implied this was a retelling of a real life case the phrase 'Inspired by a true story' shown at the beginning of the film gives the more accurate description: What we have here is a Hollywood retelling of a real-world event, with a lot of invention that ultimately weakens the real story that had inspired the movie to be made in the first place.

The makers have introduced an episode (I can't say what it is without spoiling the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it) which ends up being what swings the jury in the final decision, but which has no real relevance to the central charge of sexual discrimination, and should have had no bearing on the decision actually reached. It's meant to be a 'twist' for the audience, and in that sense it works, but it's a twist which then considerably weakens the real story and point of the whole movie. Instead of a story about a ten year legal battle for women to get their rights we get a 'day in court with flashbacks' drama with a silly twist at the end.

It's such a shame, because poor structure and unnecessarily fabricated stories aside, there is a great movie waiting to emerge from what we see here. The acting, particularly from Theron, is first rate. Richard Jenkins, perhaps best known as the 'dead' father in Six Feet Under, gives a wonderful performance as Theron's chauvenistic father, even though his part is somewhat poorly scripted in terms of explaining a fundamental shift in character. Frances McDormand, who impressed in Fargo, gives a heart-breaking performance as Theron's character's best friend dying of cancer, and even the minor roles are well played and believable throughout.

The cinematography is good, if not stunning, with some wonderful sweeping helicopter shots of the Minesota countryside and the mine at the heart of the community. And the sense of 'small town' isolation seeps through every frame of the movie. And yet director Niki Caro, best known for Whale Rider, while getting great emotional performances from her cast, seems to have totally missed the heart of the story. In the 'Making of' extra that accompanies the DVD the scriptwriter tries to justify the invented scene that is to have such an impact on the court case by saying this is a movie not just about the court case, but about the relationship between a mother and son, but that mother and son story isn't really needed and could have been adequately conveyed without inventing a scene that then has a major impact on the main 'real' story, such that it becomes weakened and implausible.

This isn't a bad movie and certainly it's one I'm glad I saw, if only for the wonderful acting from Theron. But with a better script and some fundamental restructuring it could have been a great one, and ultimately this is a disappointment, or as one imdb user put it 'a huge disservice to what should have been a powerful story'. Worth seeing, but the critics were bang on the button when they described it as a near miss.

North Country screencap

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