'North Country': Norma Rae meets Erin B.

What's the world coming to? Next they'll be letting women review movies. Sure, like they're going to appreciate the subtleties of something like North Country.

Add New Zealand's Niki Caro (Whale Rider) to the list of foreign directors who have showed, in their American debuts, they "get" our country better than do many natives.

North Country has several precedents to follow. Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich and others have made a viable subgenre of movies about (usually real) women who changed the world by unintentionally or reluctantly becoming crusaders.

Charlize Theron's performance as Josey Aimes shouldn't break the tradition of these films' lead actresses earning at least Oscar nominations and often awards. Theron doesn't get to be fat and ugly again, but she's definitely deglamorized. Wearing unflattering working-class clothes and sometimes smeared with dirt, she looks like one hot, dirty, badly dressed babe.

But she's a babe with a story, one based on fact. North Country may be a lousy title, but it's better than that of the book it's based on: Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law.

The movie starts, like An Unfinished Life, with a battered woman packing up her kids and getting out. In this case there are also flash-forwards– or whichever way we're flashing– to the courtroom where she tells her story.

It's 1989. The mines in Northern Minnesota were forced to start hiring women in 1975, but the men, who hold a 30-1 edge in the workforce, still aren't happy about it. That includes Josey's father (Richard Jenkins), a lifelong miner. She goes to live with him and her mother (Sissy Spacek) until she decides to take a mining job, and he says, "You wanna be a lesbian now?"

No, she wants to earn enough to be independent and feed her two kids, even though her mother warns she'll shame her father by doing it. Josey moves in temporarily with her friend Glory (Frances McDormand), the union rep for the working women, and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean). Glory warns Josey, "You gotta get a gator skin if you're gonna work in this stinkhole."

In the iron mine, the men, worried about more competition for fewer jobs, express their hostility with a high school mentality, mostly pranks and jokes that should be good-natured but aren't. There's a lot of use of the C-word, emphasizing the "count" in "country." Josey refuses to just "Work hard, keep your mouth shut, and take it like a man." When she reports their inappropriate behavior, the reprisals become even more vicious, and neither union nor management will help her.

She turns for help to Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a lawyer and former hockey star who's conveniently just moved back from New York. He warns her the mine will use "the Nuts and Sluts Defense: Either you're a nut and you imagined it or you're a slut and you asked for it.... Even if you win, you don't win."

After refusing to take the case, he has the brainstorm that if they make it a class action it could be a precedent-setter and win him invaluable publicity. But the judge says they'll need three plaintiffs to qualify as a class action, and the other women, who'd rather have unpleasant jobs than none at all, won't support Josey.

The eventual turning point may make the film seem formulaic, but it's cathartic and emotionally stirring, making Caro two for two.

The screenplay by Michael Seitzman is a model of efficient storytelling, moving straight ahead and building its case while allowing several smaller stories to develop along the way, providing depth and texture. Great landscapes and atmospheric shots spell the difference between a big-screen experience and a Lifetime movie of the week.

Theron proves Monster was no fluke. McDormand is excellent, though her presence is an unnecessary reminder that we're back in Fargo country, you betcha.

North Country is about what went wrong in a specific situation. It leaves you to connect the dots and figure out for yourself the importance of sensitivity training when a workplace is being integrated, especially in a blue-collar environment.