North Country continues one of the most unlikely transformations to happen at the movies in quite a while - the extreme makeover of Charlize Theron, from glittery, glamorous storklike supporting eye candy into a tough-minded and immersive character actress.
Who knew that here was a person able to entirely submerge her ability to look incredible without lifting a finger? Monster, the 2003 drama for which she won the best actress Oscar, had Theron improbably slathering on the poundage and the destroyed, swollen visage of serial murderer Aileen Wuornos.
Turns out, that's small beans.
She's just as impressive here.
But for better reasons.
It's just a lot less evident, because the irony of a fine social-injustice film like North Country is that no matter how angry it gets, no matter how raw it feels, one look at that poster, or any TV commercial, and you're dragged to earth by the marketing, and Theron is once again that glammy Oscar-winning actress who looks like a supermodel. Here's a nice problem to have: Nothing less than a complete serial killer-ish transformation would help.
Her face on that gray, serious poster is covered in soot and sweat and grime, and her eyes are not ferocious but distant and scared and noble, and still, in a way, it wouldn't be a stretch to think it was an outtake from a photo spread - factory chic?
Nicole Kidman runs into this whenever she steps out to play a janitor (The Human Stain) or a Virginia Woolf (The Hours). George Clooney has this problem in his latest pictures; he puts on some decent weight but can't drop the Cary Grant suavity. And Kevin Costner, poor lonely Kevin Costner, never could climb out from underneath his aw-shucks personality; even in Bull Durham, playing laid-back and cool, the man is a movie star. Some folks, unfortunately, were born stars, and because they want to be considered actors (there is a difference), it's an uphill battle.
Theron, with North Country, manages something Kidman, as good as she is, has yet to prove: She suggests a character not through the screenplay or grandstanding but the sen-sitive and measured way she reacts to people and things surrounding her. Theron gives us a life without giving us lots of background.
North Country takes its title from a Bob Dylan tune, "Girl From the North Country," where "the wind hits heavy on the border line." That would be northern Minnesota, a brutally bleak place to which Josey Aimes (Theron) flees, moving in with her parents when her marriage turns violent.
Her mother (Sissy Spacek), a stay-at-home wife, and firmly old school, says Josie should go back to her husband; her father (a fantastic Richard Jenkins, of Six Feet Under) has worked all his life in the iron mines, stripping the land for ore, and he recoils when his daughter considers taking a job alongside him. Already ashamed her children were born of different fathers, his bitterness at his daughter swells to resentment.
Theron is directed by Niki Caro, who made her feature debut with the great Whale Rider, and it's a savvy choice: Caro is becoming something of an expert on the ways men react to women in a deeply insulated place that doesn't take much to feel threatened.
Whale Rider took place in Caro's homeland of New Zealand, but the details are roughly similar here - and oddly, with cinematographer Chris Menges shooting Minnesota like a lunar outpost with lots of snow, it's as gorgeous as the mines are ugly.
The Maori girl in Whale Rider insists the village elders take her seriously. Theron begs for equality, then she sues for sexual harassment; mental and physical abuse wouldn't be outrageous either but her lawyer, played by Woody Harrelson, is barely convinced she has a case to begin with.
The miners want her gone. The union is composed of the miners who want her gone; and the friend who brought her in (Frances McDormand, resurrecting her Fargo accent) refuses to rock the boat. It all builds, however, in an entirely ordinary way, full of courtroom cliches and sneering corporate suits that undercut the drama.
Caro seems to be more at home with well-meaning people than bad guys - with Theron, she's at home.
If Sally Field landed an Oscar for Norma Rae, Theron deserves two for trying something even the most serious actresses rarely understand: a character of average intelligence. Her Josie is not dumb but she is not a legal genius. What she knows about sexual harassment she learns from Anita Hill's Congressional testimony.
Rather than gloss over limitations for fear of seeming condescending, North Country is very good at showing how intelligence can be a real roadblock to what one can do. Caro gives the mine the menace of a horror movie; there's an oppressive free-floating anxiety behind every woman who dares step foot in the place. But it's Theron who shows how guts, and the little she learns, creates options.
Knowledge is power.
Bravery is the icing.