"North Country" opens with a scene of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) escaping a violent marriage with two kids in tow. As she packs them into an old pickup truck, she could be the blue-collar twin of Mary Tyler Moore's career girl, setting off down a wintry Minnesota road toward an uncertain future.
And, like the spunky Mary Richards of the iconic sitcom, Josey becomes a sort of unwitting feminist symbol, here as the first woman to file a sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States. As the fictionalized version of that landmark event, "North Country" is an engrossing, well-crafted story of a grave injustice avenged, hitting all the right notes of sympathy, outrage and, finally, relief.
Based on a real-life 1984 case in which Lois Jenson sued her employer, a Minnesota mining company, "North Country" picks up the story of Josey as she arrives on her parents' doorstep in Minnesota's bleak Mesabi Iron Range. At the encouragement of a friend named Glory (Frances McDormand), Josey gets a well-paid job at one of the mines, which have only recently begun to hire women.
Despised by their male colleagues, the women are routinely groped and verbally abused, culminating, in Josey's case, in a near-rape on a pile of taconite. "A sense of humor, ladies," one co-worker intones. "Rule numero uno." A sense of humor, for example, about discovering a sex toy in your lunchbox, or seeing all manner of organic substances smeared across your locker or clothing.
"North Country" is too grim, too harrowing, too nobly aggrieved to be described as a fun night at the movies. But as an example of what used to be described as a "social problem" picture, it holds its own with such classics as "Norma Rae," "The Accused" and "Erin Brockovich." Like those films, "North Country" does a good job in ratcheting up the tension and unfairness until the audience is brought to the breaking point along with the long-suffering Josey, who takes so many hits -- to her body, her psyche and her reputation -- that she begins to resemble a feminist Saint Sebastian. (Josey's sexual past, including a teenage pregnancy, is viciously invoked to punish her for fighting back.)
Theron, who won an Oscar last year for completely transforming herself to play the prostitute Aileen Wuornos, once again proves to be a remarkable character actress, submerging her almost superhuman beauty to become a typical blond, pretty Minnesota girl. (She's also mastered the accent, which is just south of "Fargo.")
Although "North Country" is framed by Josey's emerging consciousness and eleventh-hour courtroom saves, the real drama of the movie is found in director Niki Caro's observant, even elegant depiction of the unspoken tribal codes that hold an insular community together, and the severe price of transgressing them. (It's the same talent she brought to her debut film, "Whale Rider.") The complexity of the story lies not with the piggish men and their brothers who serve as silent witnesses, but with Josey's female co-workers, none of whom at first supports her fight. Glory, the only female union representative at the plant, embodies a particular type, the "one of the boys" whose go-along-to-get-along tactics teeter precariously between survival and collaboration.
It's that ambiguity that Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman (working from a 2003 book by Washington authors Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler) have captured with economy and precision. What's more, the filmmakers let pictures and sound tell an otherwise didactic story, with panoramic shots of denuded hills and belching steam pipes suggesting the enormity of what Josey is facing, as well as a soundtrack dominated by the Iron Range's most famous son, Bob Dylan. As Josey sets off down the highway to the strains of "Sweetheart Like You," the audience is left with an ending that, while not hat-in-the-air happy, suggests that she's going to make it after all.
North Country (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and for disturbing sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and dialogue.