Map of the World: Scott Elliott Screen Debut Starring Sigourney Weaver

Dominating each and every frame she is in, Sigourney Weaver plays the boldest, most complex, and most erratic 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 can never forgive herself, the movie displays many virtues: a richly nuanced family drama, darkly sarcastic humor, intriguing characters, and above all bravura acting by Julianne Moore. Picture, whose first reel is mesmerizing but progressively gets too sprawling and messy, should be sent back to the editing room to tighten its narrative and lose at least 15 minutes from its excessive (125 minutes) running time. Substantial cuts and rearrangement of key subplots should increase the theatrical prospects for a film that’s likely to appeal to mature audiences, particularly women.

It may or may not be a coincidence, but the protagonist’s name, Alice Goodwin, assumes a mythic meaning, joining a long line of quintessential literary (Alice in Wonderland) and screen heroines in American films like Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant, Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Woody Allen’s Alice.

Based on Jane Hamilton’s popular novel, Peter Hodges 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.

In a voice-over narration, Alice sets the saga’s serio-comic 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 a hard-working husband-farmer (Strathairn), and mother of two vivacious daughters with sharp wit, common sense, and unflappable sardonic attitude toward the complexities of her life.

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

As relative newcomers, the Goodwins have only one set of real friends, Dan and Theresa Collins (Ron Lea and Julianne Moore). The two couples often take turns in babysitting each other’s children. One morning, while babysitting Theresa’s children, Alice gets distracted by her search for a bathing suit. A few minutes later, she is horrified to realize that Theresa’s two-year-old daughter Lizzie had drowned in the pond surrounding the house. Lizzie is pulled out of the water, but after s few days in coma dies, a tragedy that tears the two mothers apart and drives them both to severe depression.

Penalized by the community as recklessly irresponsible, Alice herself begins to believe she’s worthless. In the midst of her turmoil of guilt and grief, another shocking event happens: Robbie (Marc Donato), Claire’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 required for bail.

It’s at this point that the film begins to fall apart and demonstrate problems with its storytelling. Indeed, what begins as a perceptive study of a woman on the verge of 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 they are furthered hampered by the stereotypical portraiture of the female offenders and the uneven acting of the women who play them.

There are too many subplots in the second half, such as Howard’s desperate efforts to care of the children, the tentative romance that evolves between the frustrated Howard and the heartbroken Theresa. In the last reel, changes in the tone, setting, and Alice’s personality are too abrupt, giving the impression of a compressed novel rather than a fully, dramatically developed text.
Though the resolution, in which Alice comes to terms with her new identity and circumstances (the family moves to an urban complex in Chicago), is emotionally satisfying, it arrives after two hours, by which time the film has overextended its welcome. Despite these problems, interesting ideas appear throughout the film. Primary among them is the notion of Alice taking refuge from the world in prison, allowing herself to be ridiculed and abused by the other inmates.

Debutant helmer Elliott, who comes from the stage, reveals himself as a sensitive actor’s director, but lacks sharp directorial skills to turn this dense, truly disturbing material into a clearer and more shapely narrative. Indeed, what redeems the film (up to a point) is the accomplished acting of the entire ensemble, beginning with Weaver, who’s perfectly cast in a role that allows her to disclose new dimensions of her talent. The brilliant Moore excels in showing Theresa’s gradual transformation to the point where she shows respect and forgiveness for Alice and even defends her in court. 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.

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