Foreboding territory: Film about sexual harassment grimly fascinating

“The War Between the Sexes” is a term generally used with humor, to describe the flirting, game-playing and jockeying for power that mark relations between males and females in any culture.

In the new film “North Country,” however, the War Between the Sexes is no game. It’s an angry, ugly struggle between outsiders who want in and an entrenched hierarchy resolved to keep them out.

Anyone who’s ever sat through a tedious seminar on sexual harassment in the workplace, snickering inwardly at the list of no-nos and wondering why such seemingly common-sense advice has to be delineated, will find the answer to that question in “North Country.”

Based very loosely on the 2002 nonfiction book “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” the film gives a fictionalized account of the first major sexualharassment class-action lawsuit brought in the United States.

Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes (who’s based on Lois Jenson), a woman fleeing home to Minnesota and her parents to escape a brutal husband. With two children to care for and no job training, her prospects are few until a friend, Glory (played by the excellent Frances McDormand of “Fargo” fame) invites her to apply at the local steel mine, where the pay is good. Desperate to afford a home of her own and to be able to take her kids out to “a nice place” like Village Inn, Josey agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that her work, difficult and dangerous enough to begin with, will be made far more difficult by the deep and bitter hostility of the male mine workers who don’t want women joining their ranks.

Today in America, the line between sexual harassment and harmless flirting can sometimes be gray and blurry. Is it harassment to try to coax a co-worker out on a date if she doesn’t give a definite “no”? Is sexual banter permissible if both parties seem to enjoy it? What if someone else can overhear them?

Well, subtleties such as these aren’t the subject of “North Country.” The sexual harassment here is unmistakable, brutal and sickening. Josey must submit to a pelvic exam in order to be hired (to make sure she isn’t pregnant), then is told by her supervisor on her first day, “The doctor says you look darn good under those clothes.”

The male miners leer, slobber, hoot, and threaten. They scrawl crude drawings and disgusting graffiti on the walls of the mine and on its machinery. They surprise their female co-workers with undesired “gifts” in their lunch boxes and lockers. They grope them when they get the chance. And every protest from the women is met with the comment, “Where’s your sense of humor?”

If all this seems unbelievable, think again. The case that inspired the film, that of Lois E. Jenson vs. Eveleth Taconite Co., was replete with similar allegations, although the movie changes most of the details. Filed in 1988, the class-action lawsuit charged that male workers at the EVTAC mine in Eveleth, Minn., subjected female employees to a horrific barrage of abhorrent behavior, including offensive and pornographic graffiti, sexual touching, stalking, and tire-slashing.

“North Country” doesn’t follow the literal details of that case but rather its spirit. Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), the film offers sharp images that comment on the themes and linger in the memory: A glimpse of Josey’s daughter playing with a Barbie doll, that grotesquely exaggerated ideal of feminine beauty. The northern Minnesota landscape, bleak and comfortless as conditions at the mine. A calendar in the mine supervisor’s office depicting a girl in tight shorts, legs spread wide. Enormous, implacable machines grinding, crushing, pulverizing.

The film has an outstanding cast, with Sissy Spacek as Josey’s mother, Woody Harrelson as her lawyer, and Richard Jenkins as her conflicted father, who reacts to her new job by asking, “You want to be a lesbian now?” Theron is the only incongruous member of the cast — although an excellent actor, she seems too fragile and beautiful to be a miner. (Is that a sexist remark? Perhaps, but Hollywood has a disturbing propensity for casting pretty faces in leading roles when it’s utterly inappropriate.) The other female miners, however, are earthy and credible, as is their behavior — they turn on Theron once she starts to make trouble.

The film is so grim that a merciful silence reigned through the theater when I saw it, instead of the usual jabbering of movie-goers who seem to think they’re in their own living room.

However, “North Country” has flaws. The male miners are completely twodimensional (even though they also are believable as resentful brutes). In particular, the final courtroom scene and the Perry Mason-style examination of a witness don’t ring true, attempting to put a quick, neat, dramatic ending on a dreary battle that had just begun. The movie glosses over and compresses the protracted, exhausting legal struggle that occurred in the real-life case, which dragged on for more than 10 years, sending Jenson into a profound depression and one of her female co-plaintiffs into a mental hospital. (Anyone who imagines filing a lawsuit is the ticket to a quick monetary reward should perhaps reconsider.)

The story, though certainly different from any of these, evokes memories of “Norma Rae” and “Mississippi Burning” — for racism and sexism arise from the same ancient and misguided human instincts, after all.

“North Country’s” release, purely by coincidence, dovetails with the recent death of Rosa Parks, the quiet civilrights activist. For, in real life, Parks and Jenson demonstrated how profoundly an ordinary person can alter the world by having the courage to do what’s right.

From Arts & Entertainment, November 2005.