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

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.