Although inspired by a real-life sexual harassment case, the story of mineworker Josey Aimes is fictional and that becomes obvious after a few too many melodramatic twists. Largely though North Country is a bold and well-judged piece of work by the director of Whale Rider, Niki Caro. She lends a stark edge to what could have been a too-slick courtroom thriller. But it's Charlize Theron who really provides the backbone with her trademark balance of grit and vulnerability.
Caro adds depth by exploring the feeling that Josey is self-righteous and even selfish in her quest for equal rights. After being groped and humiliated by her male colleagues, she embarks on a blind crusade against the wishes of her female workmates who cannot afford to lose their jobs. Sympathy lies as much with them and, in particular, Frances McDormand as a no-nonsense gal who refuses to flinch at the guys' dirty jokes (she just tells an even dirtier one).
While the varying depictions of women are keenly observed, portraying an environment of institutionalised bullying creates other problems. Instead of one pivotal incident, much time is spent on the day-to-day name-calling and "grab-ass," which, while appalling, feels monotonous. It's not until Josey's own son (Thomas Curtis) turns against her that the stakes get upped. Likewise the clash between Josey and her parents (the brilliant Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek) makes the legal battle more compelling. Towards the end, skeletons come rattling out of the closet too noisily, but the conviction of the actors lifts North Country above the mire of sentimentality.