A woman who blames herself for the death of one child and is blamed by her community for the sexual abuse of another lives in hell, but ooh, what heaven for an actress. In A Map of the World, Sigourney Weaver benefits from the tragedy that befalls Alice Goodwin, a mother and part-time school nurse in rural Wisconsin, where her husband (David Strathairn) pursues his back-to-nature dream of running a farm, and where her friend Teresa (Julianne Moore) is as perfectly organized about raising her two daughters as Alice is imperfectly improvisational about rearing hers. (Some small part of her is proud that the house is a mess.) The accidental drowning of one of Teresa’s children while under Alice’s babysitting care, though, magnifies everything that Alice thinks is truly bad about herself. And that’s even before she’s accused of sexual abuse by one of her students, arrested, and held in prison when her husband can’t raise bail.
Such big emotions! Such issues of good-enough motherhood, such life lessons! And yet, in comparison with other recent Lifetime-ready literature — Before and After, One True Thing, Anywhere but Here — transmuted into undistinguished movie melodrama, A Map of the World, based on Jane Hamilton’s 1994 novel, is a considerably more interesting adaptation. New York theater director Scott Elliott, in his feature-film debut, is especially perceptive about what goes on at the edges during deepening family crises, literally at the borders of the screen, with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey nosing around for closer views from unusual angles. The result, particularly in scenes between husband and wife, is an unexpectedly natural sense of intimacy.
As for Alice herself, she is Weaver’s anti-Ripley, a chance for the physically regal actress, whose imposing, self-possessed persona can sometimes work against her, to inhabit a character humbled by awful circumstances. And the star’s emotionally direct performance is lovely, warm, that of a mother on this earth, not queen among Aliens. I’m not thrilled that Strathairn must, for the umpteenth time, wear the mantle of husbandly wimpdom. And once Alice is surrounded by fellow inmates, Weaver gets all thespiany. But in this season of Oscar-bait overacting, I’m grateful that A Map of the World includes recognizable emotional landmass. B-