Dominating every frame she's in, Sigourney Weaver plays the boldest, most complex role of her career in "A Map of the World," Scott Elliott's provocative and unsettling but seriously flawed feature debut. An emotionally powerful tale of a bright woman whose life spins out of control, the movie displays many virtues: richly nuanced family drama, darkly sarcastic humor, intriguing characters and bravura acting by Julianne Moore.

Dominating every frame she’s in, Sigourney Weaver plays the boldest, most complex role of her career in “A Map of the World,” Scott Elliott’s provocative and unsettling but seriously flawed feature debut. An emotionally powerful tale of a bright woman whose life spins out of control as a result of an accident for which she cannot forgive herself, the movie displays many virtues: richly nuanced family drama, darkly sarcastic humor, intriguing characters and, above all, bravura acting by Julianne Moore. First reel is mesmerizing, but pic progressively gets too sprawling and messy. It should be sent back to the editing room to tighten its narrative and shorten its running time. Substantial cuts and rearrangement of key subplots would increase theatrical prospects for a film that’s likely to appeal to mature audiences, particularly women.

Based on Jane Hamilton’s popular novel, Peter Hedges and Polly Platt’s cluttered, vastly uneven script centers on an eccentric but vulnerable woman who falls from grace, embarking on a journey to hell before regaining a new sense of normalcy. Protagonist’s name, Alice Goodwin, suggests a mythic meaning, recalling heroines from literature (“Alice in Wonderland”) and American movies (Arthur Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Woody Allen’s “Alice”).

In voiceover narration, Alice sets the saga’s seriocomic tone, establishing her outsider status (“What did I know about farm life?”) as well as the trajectory of her future moral and psychological odyssey. Alice juggles her roles as a part-time school nurse, wife to hard-working farmer Howard (David Strathairn), and mother of two vivacious daughters with sharp wit, common sense and an unflappable sardonic attitude toward the complexities of her life.

Her droll perspective on human nature — and on her family — is wrongly perceived by the simple folks of her rural Wisconsin town. This is manifest early on at work, when Alice accuses a young mom, Carole Mackessy (Chloe Sevigny), of being an irresponsible parent for habitually sending her sick child to school. To cope with life and let off steam, she tends to make such remarks as “There are wicked things I’d like to do to these kids” and “I hurt everybody” — statements that, taken out of context, are dangerously misinterpreted by her colleagues.

Relative newcomers to the area, the Goodwins have only one set of real friends, Dan and Theresa Collins (Ron Lea, Moore). The two couples often take turns baby-sitting for each other. One morning, while watching Theresa’s children, Alice gets distracted. A few minutes later, she is horrified to find Theresa’s 2-year-old daughter, Lizzie, floating in the pond next to the house, unconscious. After a few days in a coma, Lizzie dies, a tragedy that tears the two mothers apart and drives them both to severe depression.

The community considers her recklessly irresponsible, and Alice herself begins to believe she’s worthless. Amid the turmoil of her guilt and grief, another shocking event occurs: Robbie (Marc Donato), a neighbor’s son, accuses Alice of sexual abuse. Abruptly taken away from her family, she’s put in prison because her husband can’t raise the $100,000 bail.

It’s at this point that storytelling problems emerge and the film starts to fall apart. What begins as a perceptive study of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown gradually turns into a disappointingly conventional prison drama, followed by a schematic and obvious court trial. The jail sequences are too long and further hampered by the stereotypical portraits of female prisoners and the uneven acting of the women who portray them.

There are too many subplots in the second half, among them Howard’s desperate efforts to take care of the children and the tentative romance that evolves between him and the heartbroken Theresa. In the last reel, changes in tone, setting and Alice’s personality are too abrupt, giving the impression of a compressed novel rather than a fully developed drama. Though the resolution is emotionally satisfying, it arrives after two hours, by which time the film has overextended its welcome.

Despite these problems, interesting ideas figure throughout the pic. Primary among them is the notion that Alice takes refuge from the world in prison and willingly submits herself to ridicule and abuse from the other inmates.

Helmer Elliott, who comes from the stage, is a sensitive director of actors but lacks sharp enough skills to turn this dense, disturbing material into a clearer and more shapely narrative. Indeed, what redeems the film (up to a point) is the accomplished acting of the ensemble, beginning with Weaver, who’s perfectly cast in a role that allows her to reveal new dimensions of her talent. The brilliant Moore excels at showing Theresa’s gradual transformation, leading to forgiveness. Strathairn is reliable as the loyal husband, whose love for Alice endures insurmountable obstacles, and Arliss Howard is effective as the skillful lawyer who handles the case.

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey gives the film an interesting visual arc. The first chapters have a warm quality, with gentle camera moves; the middle ones, which depict Alice’s dire predicament, have a more disruptive style, with rough and disconcerting edges; and the hopeful resolution is expressed through a more static and stable camera.

A Map of the World

Production

An Overseas Filmgroup presentation of a Kennedy/Marshall Co. production. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall. Executive producer, Willi Bar. Co-producer, Lisa Niedenthal. Directed by Scott Elliott. Screenplay, Peter Hedges, Polly Platt, based on the novel by Jane Hamilton.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Seamus McGarvey; editors, Craig McKay, Naomi Geraghty; music, Pat Metheny; production designer, Richard Toyon; art director, Kei; set decorator, Megan Less; costume designer, Suzette Daigle; sound (Dolby), Claude La Haye; associate producer, Rainer Bienger (Cinerenta); assistant director, Laurie Mirsky; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 14, 1999. Running time: 125 MIN.

With

Alice Goodwin - Sigourney Weaver Theresa Collins - Julianne Moore Howard Goodwin - David Strathairn Dan Collins - Ron Lea Paul Reverdy - Arliss Howard Carole Mackessy - Chloe Sevigny Nellie - Louise Fletcher Emma - Dara Perlmutter Claire - Kayla Perlmutter Robbie - Marc Donato
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