'North Country': A Real Event, Made to Feel Fake

North Country, starring Charlize Theron, is about the sexual harassment class action lawsuit that the women of EVTAC mines in Minnesota filed in the 1980s. Critic Turan says the taint of melodrama affects the entire movie, despite a good performance by Theron.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Winning the Oscar for best actress in the movie "Monster" gave Charlize Theron the clout to pick prime movie projects. The first film she chose since her award-winning performance is titled "North Country." It arrives in theaters today. MORNING EDITION and Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

What Hollywood gives Hollywood takes away. Studio filmmaking can make something as unreal as an alien invasion look like reality. It can also make events that really happened feel as fake as crocodile tears, which is what happens with "North Country." "North Country" is the Hollywood version of what led up to the groundbreaking sexual harassment class-action lawsuit that changed the lives of American working women. It stars Charlize Theron and is directed by Niki Caro, who did "Whale Rider." To see it is to feel that the whole tale is hopelessly exaggerated. That's not true, but the taint of melodrama infects the entire movie. This is a pity because Caro and Theron bring good things to the table. The director works quite well with the film's strong group of supporting actresses, including Sissy Spacek and Frances McDormand.

(Soundbite of "North Country")

Ms. SISSY SPACEK: (As Alice Aimes) Honey, you got to get a gator skin on, you're going to work in this stink hole. Promise me something, do not go to Arlen with this one. You keep whining and moaning.

Ms. FRANCES McDORMAND: (As Glory) Well, we're doing the exact same thing they want us to do. Screw that. We can take any crap they dish out, can't we?

TURAN: As for Theron, she does more genuine acting here as a woman who goes to work in Minnesota's iron mines that she has ever done before.

(Soundbite of "North Country")

Ms. CHARLIZE THERON: (As Josey Aimes) The first time in my life I'm making my own money. I can feed my kids. I'm going to get us our own place. I just feel like for the first time in my life I got...

Ms. SPACEK: (As Alice Aimes) You're living.

Ms. THERON: (As Josey Aimes) Yeah, living.

TURAN: The problem with "North Country" is that hardly anyone cuts Theron's character a break, ever. Her husband beats her, her kids demean her, her mother ignores her, her father has no respect for her. By the time she gets faced with dreadful sexual harassment at the mine, things feel so relentlessly one-sided we are tempted to tune out. We really shouldn't, though, because those things really happened. So it's doubly unfortunate that the film's attempts to bludgeon us into submission are so counterproductive.

Movies have to use dramatic license in order to tell complex stories, but "North Country's" overeagerness to convince us makes us reject rather than embrace the story. A review of the book that inspired this film predicted that Hollywood would transform this complicated saga into a tiny three-act screenplay that would emphasize redemption and uplift at the expense of reality. Given how important this story is and how much we want to get behind it, the fact that that prophecy came true is especially sad.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION. "North Country" opens today.

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