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North Country

Year: 2006
Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan
North Country is a story of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Get Rich or Die Tryin' was a story about drug running and the violence that ensues (although City of God did it much better). Even Fahrenheit 9/11, as it showed marine recruiters scouting shopping centres in downtrodden areas and congressmen looking incredulously at Michael Moore when he asked them why it wasn't their sons and daughters in Iraq, was common to the theme.

What theme? Consider any film of people downtrodden by circumstances, their workplace, their background or their lack of skills and you'll realise they're all the story of poverty.

Josie Aimes (Theron) is living a shocking and all-too common cliché; she had kids too young, lives in an economically depressed area and is routinely bashed senseless by her husband. As things go from bad to worse for Josie, it's many of the same factors that impact upon her.

If she'd lived in an area with more opportunity, in a place where there were more liberal ideas about workplace relations, if she'd had the chance to finish her education properly, her life would have been very different.

Its true there's sexual assault and domestic violence in more affluent societies, but armed with the support of her family, a knowledge of her rights or avenues to justice Josie should have had, her journey would have been made a lot easier. It's shameful enough stories like North Country were going on as late as the 1980s, worse that they're still going on in so much of the world.

When Josie starts to pull herself up by her bootstraps - getting her own place and wanting to cry with joy at something so commonplace as sitting in a nice restaurant - her sense of accomplishment is not only heartbreaking, it's far more real than any amount of blowing up comets bound for earth or fighting dinosaurs.

But just as Josie starts to make her own success in life, other forces are going to make her life hell as she gets work in the local mines. Women are traditionally tolerated as long as they don't mind the odd rubber dildo in their lunchbox or graffiti of them giving blowjobs on the walls. Josie minds, and not out of a sense of indignation on behalf of the sisterhood, but because every time she tries to stand up for herself, her and her female co-workers are tormented - even threatened - all the more.

The small-minded people who surround her (including her own father) make things worse, and Josie enlists the help of burned out lawyer (Harrelson) to stand alone in court for the simple right to go to work and feed her kids without being terrified.

Inspired by the first-ever successful class action lawsuit against sexual harassment, it'll make you seethe and it'll make you want to cry. Far from entertaining, it's disturbing but essential viewing. Your emotions will take a battering throughout, and they should.

Little of North Country is subtle, and it constantly skirts the line of a black and white all-women-suffer, all-men-are-bastards archetype, but as Josie soon learns, few men and indeed few of the women around her are to be trusted.

Whale Rider helmer Niki Caro takes cues from the true case that inspired the movie and fills Josie's life with bleakness, and Theron fills her eyes with fear and her heart with sadness and determination. She's no superwoman, but she's called to do some extraordinary things. And full credit to her for her choices. Far from a typical bland movie star, she seems to want to balance entertainment (Aeon Flux, The Italian Job) with movies that have something to say.

North Country doesn't so much as say it as smack you about the head with it, but nor is sexual harassment pleasant to suffer or watch. While there are probably instances where anti harassment laws have done more harm than good, North Country reminds us they're essential, and how only knowledge can lift us all out of poverty and save us.

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