Abused Josey Aimes (Theron) returns to her hometown in 1989 with two kids and no prospects until she takes work in the local iron mines. Pleasure in her new independence is shortlived, though, when brutal harassment of the women miners goads Josey into a fightback that will make legal history.
We’re used to films characterising miners as the salt of the earth. But according to this earnest picture they are scum, along with all the other working men in the poor town where fathers, husbands and little boys brand a woman a whore for stepping out of line and daring to work alongside men in a dirty, dangerous occupation.
Whoever thought the first class-action sexual harassment suit in US legal history — even as heavily fictionalised as this is — would make for a hot movie? A TV movie of the week... maybe. Hypothetically, something uplifting might have come from this Norma Rae wannabe in hard hats in the hands of a good social-conscience director, but New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale Rider) mounts no inspired challenge to the black-and-white caricatures of the screenplay, in which most of the men are unbelievably disgusting. (For a change of pace Sean Bean gets to play Mr. Nice Guy, but he has perhaps the worst American accent ever.) And even in movieland there are certain incredulities around which audiences’ heads will not stretch. Charlize Theron playing a miner is one of these. As Bean’s supportive character pleasantly worries: “She’s kinda girly to be a miner.” No shit. Minus the prosthetics that uglified her for Monster, she works those coveralls, helmet and safety goggles like she’s on a catwalk, and it’s hard to believe a word she utters.
Woody Harrelson is scarcely more likely as her lawyer, who takes Josey’s case against the mine not because he’s in touch with his feminine side but because it will be a landmark class action — if she can persuade other women to stand up with her. And therein lies the dramatic rub, of course, because the whole town is cruelly against her and the women workers are too chicken to make a fuss about physical intimidation and Neanderthal pranks like semen deposits in their lockers.
The ensemble do their darnedest to make this involving while you’re wondering why she doesn’t go postal and kill them all. But it completely falls apart in court, where the melodramatic monologuing is bang out of order, a big bombshell revelation is made about two hours after we’ve figured it out, and victimised women and shamefaced menfolk belatedly discover solidarity, rising to their feet by ones and twos for a priceless “I’m Spartacus” moment.
It starts off well enough but slowly sinks under the leaden weight of its worthiness, an over-hopeful bid for Oscars which is undermined by the totally absurd courtroom climactics.