Tag Archives: B-

A MAP OF THE WORLD

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B-

The acting definitely transcends what could have been terribly
shopworn material in Scott Elliott’s adaptation of Jane
Hamilton’s novel, about a harried mother/school nurse in
rural Wisconsin who’s tormented by the fact that a neighbor’s
young daughter died while in her care and accused of sexual
abuse by several local children. From the perspective of
content alone, “A Map of the World” resembles nothing more
than one of those four-hour Lifetime miniseries about a woman
whose life is shattered by tragedy and wrongful vilification–
though, to be fair, the script does attempt to build greater
dramatic complexity into the situation than a simple precis
might suggest.

But the picture is raised far above any cable-TV level by
showcasing some of the finest performances given by American
actresses this year. Sigourney Weaver is strikingly direct
and honest as the troubled heroine, brilliantly projecting the
character’s guilt and ambivalence, and Julianne Moore is
equally superb in the smaller but difficult role of the friend
whose daughter drowns while being watched over by Weaver. In
an even lesser part amounting to little more than a cameo,
Chloe Sevigny does wonders as the slatternly mother of the boy
who accuses Weaver of molesting him; and young Dara Perlmutter
is very realistic as Weaver’s frequently nasty and unpleasant
older daughter (no rose-colored views of childhood here). Even
Louise Fletcher, who’s given to overacting, manages a nice
turn as Weaver’s slightly critical but essentially well-
intentioned mother-in-law.

The men are not quite up to this level, but David Strathairn
puts his laconic persona to good use as Weaver’s retiring but
supportive husband, while Arliss Howard displays an easygoing
sleaziness as her driven defense lawyer.

For the first hour of the picture, stage director Scott Elliott
does a very good job of maintaining the tension of the story
without sacrificing the integrity of the performances or the
gritty complexity of the characterization; at times the result
recalls the effect that Victor Nunez and the young Ashley Judd
achieved in “Ruby in Paradise.” But in the second half of the
film, as Weaver goes into the county jail and suffers a
variety of indignities at the hands of some hard-bitten,
initially unsympathetic inmates, the story slides off into
greater conventionality; despite the efforts of Weaver to
suggest that the incarceration is, for the overburdened and
guilt-ridden housewife, in some ways an oddly liberating
experience, the bonding that the orange-suited women
eventually achieve over their differences is forced and
unpersuasive. The intercutting of a brief attraction between
Strathairn and Moore at this juncture also seems strained,
and the final court sequences, despite a narrative attempt to
throw a final curve, come across as entirely too pat and
predictable.

Until the picture veers off onto too many tangents that neither
the writing nor the direction is accomplished enough to bring
together successfully, however, “A Map of the World” carries
surprising dramatic power; and the acting is good enough to
carry it over even the admitted rough patches in the final
reels. In spite of its flaws, moreover, it provides a setting
for some of the best work Weaver and Moore have ever done; and
given their previous accomplishments, that’s high praise
indeed, and reason enough to see it.

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

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B-

A feel-good film about the aftermath of the war in Bosnia might
seem an impossible task, but that’s roughly what novice writer-
director Jasmin Dizdar has attempted in her feature debut.
Actually “Beautiful People” is a complex, multi-layered black
comedy-drama which, through a variety of intercutting narratives,
portrays the spillover of Balkan ethnic hatreds into the
London of 1993 by dramatizing the experiences of immigrants
trying, after escaping the horrors of their native land, to
become a part of England’s broadly multicultural population
mix. In the process the Bosnians must learn to suppress the
antagonisms which have driven their lives for so long, while
the British with whom they come into contact find themselves
changed by the experience. By the end, although undercurrents
of the old pains remain, the process of assimilation has taken
hold, and the future looks promising, if imperfect; as one
character observes rather too obviously, if one can find even
brief moments of joy amidst the catastrophe, life can be
beautiful.

One has to admire the ambition of Diznar’s concept, which
contains elements of broad farce (especially in the sequences
involving a Serb and a Croat who batter one another into a
hospital ward, where they’re housed with a Welsh terrorist who’s
exploded a bomb in his own face–a reminder that ethnic strife
is evident everywhere), drawing-room comedy (in the portrayal
of the home life of a British MP whose daughter becomes
romantically attached to a Yugoslavian refugee), whimsically
sentimental humor (in a narrative about a young hooligan who,
mistakenly transported into the Balkan war zone, is transformed
by the experience and becomes a hero to his middle-class
parents), domestic drama (in the story of a doctor whose wife
has just left them and who gives shelter to a newly-arrived
Bosnian couple) and political denunciation of western failure
to stop the conflict (through an episode regarding a BBC
journalist wounded in the Balkan fighting who is tormented by
what he’d seen there). The segments are diverse in terms of
both narrative and tone, but they’re all shot through with
streaks of mordant humor and moments of pungent pain that give
them considerable, if sporadic, power.

Still, it must be admitted that, for all the virtues of its
concept, its execution is often flawed. For one thing, there
are simply too many characters to allow for them to be
presented in anything but the most cursory, perfunctory fashion;
over the course of the first hour, a viewer might wish for a
scorecard to consult about who’s who, and even after the
identification becomes less difficult, most of the figures
continue to be portrayed so sketchily that they seem like
pieces on a cinematic chessboard rather than full, vibrant
human beings. Nor are all the narratives of equal interest;
that concerning the young layabout Griffin (Danny Nussbaum)
whose accidental trip to Bosnia nullifies his own prejudices
and promises to change his life is probably the most
immediately appealing (and surely the funniest).

But even in that strand of the plot, the speed and ease in the
transformation of the characters come across as not merely
implausible but somehow troubling. In the final analysis
Diznar’s picture seems to underplay the lasting impact that
the horrors of Bosnia must necessarily have on its victims;
the fact that the BBC journalist is apparently cured of what
one doctor calls the “Bosnia syndrome” of identifying with the
people involved in the conflict by the simple expedient of
hypnotism is characteristic here. And the mostly generous (if
sometimes grudging) acceptance by the English of the Yugoslav
immigrants appears too simple as well; in this connection the
abrupt and sentimental abandonment by two of Griffin’s pals of
their ugly xenophobia toward the picture’s close, while
eliciting smiles of contentment from the audience, is forced
and dramatically false.

“Beautiful People” is thus a film of brilliant isolated
moments, but its segmented approach ultimately dilutes its
impact, and the hopefulness of its final message seems, in
view of its subject, oddly self-congratulatory.