Friday December 3, 1999
Sigourney Weaver's Alice Goodwin finds herself heading into uncharted territory as her life starts unraveling.
Adapted by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt from Jane Hamilton's novel, "A Map of the World" is a serious film that has provided Weaver with what is arguably the richest and most challenging role of her career, possibly even more complex than that of primatologist Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist." Under Scott Elliott's perceptive direction, Weaver responds with a luminous portrayal that misses no nuances or implications. The same can be said for her co-stars Julianne Moore and David Strathairn.
Weaver is a natural aristocrat with her commanding intelligence, physical stature and striking looks. No matter how contemporary she may be, no matter how ferocious a Wonder Woman taking on one alien after another, she is innately regal at the core--think Eleanor Roosevelt or Ethel Barrymore. (She could be a great Medea.)
Alice has moved from the city with her quiet, unassuming husband, Howard (Strathairn), to a Wisconsin farm with their small daughters, the stubborn, defiant Emma (Dara Perlmutter) and the younger, more docile Claire (Kayla Perlmutter). Alice is a good sport as a farm wife and mother but is an outspoken woman of astringent wit and irony, qualities that are pretty much lost on her unsophisticated neighbors, with the exception of Moore's demure Theresa Collins, who appreciates and perhaps envies Alice's wry, candid sense of humor.
Out of nowhere tragedy strikes, leaving Alice so consumed with guilt that she considers herself to be in the throes of a nervous breakdown--one that, as she remarks, nobody will let her have. Only weeks later, Alice, a nurse at the local grammar school, is arrested and hauled off to jail, accused of sexually abusing the troubled son (Marc Donato) of a local waitress (Chloe Sevigny) whom Alice has criticized as a bad mother. Public opinion instantly turns against Alice, this "outsider" who is overly blunt and direct by conservative community standards, a woman sensed as a threat because of a natural superiority she neither hides nor allows to lapse into condescension.
In its broadest outlines, "A Map of the World," a traditional-style narrative, follows a course that can be predicted, but along the way the filmmakers take full advantage of making each character as distinctive and individual as possible. In the Racine County Jail, Alice discovers that she is the only white woman other than her cellmate, an overweight young woman who murders her newborn twins so that her mother won't know their father was black. In short, Alice couldn't find a riper locale for the redemption she craves. In the meantime, Howard valiantly copes as best he can, his incarcerated wife too self-absorbed to comprehend fully at first his ordeal.
Alice's predicament allows us to see how a marriage can work between committed people of differing temperaments. On the surface, Alice and Howard don't seem the perfect match; she overwhelms him in personality and intellect, yet he is a man of calm, steady strength who complements her well. Even so, he and Theresa, who possesses a noble and forgiving nature without a trace of the insufferable, seem better suited to each other. Louise Fletcher, as Howard's well-meaning but dense mother, and Arliss Howard, as Alice's shrewd attorney, lend vital support.
In all ways, "A Map of the World" is an accomplished film that continually takes us beyond our first impressions of people and situations. It is a remarkably assured and graceful work for a first film; director Elliott is making his screen debut following a distinguished career in the New York theater. "A Map of the World" rewards us for trusting that it will aim higher than socially conscious drama and instead become Alice's odyssey of self-discovery. Alice requires nothing less than a heroic portrayal--and that is precisely what Weaver gives her.
A Map of the World, 1999. R, for some sexuality and language. A First Look Pictures presentation. Director Scott Elliott. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Executive producer Willi Bar. Screenplay Peter Hedges and Polly Platt; based on the novel by Jane Hamilton. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Editors Craig McKay and Naomi Geraghty. Music Pat Metheny. Costumes Suzette Daigle. Production designer Richard Toyon. Art director Kei. Set decorator Megan Less. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Anjelica Huston as Agnes Browne. Marion O'Dwyer as Marion Monks. Ray Winstone as Mr. Billy. Arno Chevrier as Pierre. Sigourney Weaver as Alice Goodwin. Julianne Moore as Theresa Collins. David Strathairn as Howard Goodwin. Arliss Howard as Paul Reverdy.