NORTH COUNTRY: Very Good Film. Very Bad Title.

"A fictionalized account of a major sexual harassment case, where a woman endured a range of abuse while working as a miner."

I was among the first audience to see an excellent new film. Filmed under the name CLASS ACTION, this Oscar caliber tale of social injustice has been handed the terrible title of NORTH COUNTRY. Somebody please explain where NORTH COUNTRY fits in. Yeah, it takes place in Minnesota, but this is not a regional story. This is a universal story that has the power to start a national debate on social equality. It's also just about one of the most absorbing dramas of recent years.

NORTH COUNTRY (grr, why?) stars Charlize Theron, and this film will cement her as one of the top actresses working today. She's practically a mortal lock for a Best Actress nomination. Comparisons to Julia Roberts and ERIN BROCKOVITCH as well as Sally Field in NORMA RAE are inevitable. (Why not follow suit and name the film after Charlize's character, Josie Aimes?) Here we have the same mixture of personal and professional, working class taking on the system. And like ERIN and NORMA the role is both a great character to play and a dynamic vehicle for its star. In a debate, the edge would go to Julia only because her character had an acid tongued tartness that made her film more fun to watch. Charlize is more of a punching bag, as the abuse is piled onto her and her female coworkers. But with each blow we watch as Josie toughens herself further until she becomes a true force to be dealt with. She doesn't go on a mission of revenge a la KILL BILL. The story stays true and gives us a woman who simply won't let herself be hurt anymore.

But there's also Francis McDormand giving one of her very best performances. Woody Harrelson shows up as a lawyer, and this is his best work since THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. Sissy Spacek, Sean Bean, and special mention to Richard Jenkins
("Six feet Under", FLIRTING WITH DISASTER) who plays Charlize's father and co-worker who hates his own daughter. (There are reasons I will not divulge.) He has a strong shot at a Supporting Actor nomination.

Holding it all together is director Niki Caro, who previously impressed me a lot with the touching WHALE RIDER. This film makes her a dramatic director of the 1st rank. There's a scene towards the beginning that could easily have been done with dialoge. Caro instead just holds on three actors and watches as they slowly break apart right before our eyes.

And her recreation of a Minnesota mining town is flawless. It threw me when I read that this was a fictionalized account because everything -- story, setting, performance -- feels authentic.

Will Charlize follow Sally and Julia's footsteps all the way to Oscar glory? Hard to say. She's certainly the only award worthy performance by an Actress I've seen so far this year. But she just won not too long ago. Plus Warner Brothers is releasing the film in October, too early for Oscars. This needs to open in limited release in December and slowly expand in early 2006. But Warner Brothers doesn't want to bump up against Charlize's other picture, the sci-fi actioner AEON FLUX...which in my strong opinion looks terrible. Bad enough to destroy Charlize's Oscar goodwill? We will see.


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