School nurse Alice Goodwin lives with her husband and two daughters on a dairy farm in a small Wisconsin community. After an accident on her property involving a friend's child, the town turns against her and Alice finds herself fighting charges of child abuse. Written by
Strong performances by Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore highlight this involving and, at times emotionally draining film about the boundaries that are inherently a part of our lives, and the limits of those boundaries, both in how much we are able to give, as well as how much we can take. `A Map of the World,' directed by Scott Elliott, examines the confines of the parameters within which an individual must live, and the finite capacity of any one person to endure stress that exceeds the specific limitations established for that individual by nature. And it's not a matter of one knowing one's limitations; rather it is a matter of knowing how to cope with the results, once one has been driven past the breaking point into a world that can no longer be viewed in black and white, but only in shades of gray-- that point beyond right or wrong or what is politically correct; the point at which nothing matters but survival-- how to live in a world that can have so much to offer, while being so relentlessly unmerciful and decidedly unforgiving at the same time.
Transplanted from the big city to a farm in Wisconsin, Alice and Howard Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver, David Strathairn) are attempting to make a go of their own dairy business. But it isn't easy. Howard is immersed in his work, while Alice, in addition to taking on the full time responsibilities and pressures of raising their two daughters and maintaining the household, also works as a school nurse. And though Alice likes her life, the constant strain of keeping her own life on task, as well as seemingly everyone else within her sphere of existence, begins to take a toll on her.
With no respite from the daily grind, Alice becomes increasingly exhausted and exasperated. She finds some solace in her close friend, Theresa Collins (Julianne Moore), but what she really needs is some time to herself; some time to clear her head and regroup. Instead, an unexpected summer tragedy strikes the Goodwin and Collins households, which damages Alice's much needed relationship with Theresa. And as if that isn't enough, further trials and tribulations are about to descend upon Alice-- one of those curves life has a way of throwing at you when it's least expected, or needed. And it's something that will test the limits of Alice's capacity to endure, more than ever before.
Working from a remarkably insightful screenplay by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt (adapted from the novel by Jane Hamilton), director Elliott presents a genuinely honest film that takes an in-depth look at what it often takes just to `maintain' on a daily basis, and the very real issues and situations that a person like Alice is apt to encounter. From the very beginning, Elliott establishes the credibility of the film by creating an atmosphere and setting that is entirely real-- so real, in fact, it will be more than a bit disconcerting to many who will so readily be able to identify with Alice and relate to her situation. And, having effected such realism, Elliott then moves on to deliver a thoroughly engrossing, emotional drama, which he renders with great care and sensitivity.
Elliott achieves success with this film through an obviously keen understanding of the material, the story, and the characters and their corresponding attitudes and reactions to given situations. And he keeps it `real' throughout by eschewing any superfluous melodrama or sub-plots, the likes to which a film like this in lesser hands could easily lend itself. In the final analysis, Elliott knows what he wants to convey, and furthermore, knows how to do it by exacting the kind of performances from his actors that really sells it.
As often happens (too often, in fact), the extraordinary performances in this film were inexplicably overlooked (as well as the film itself) and/or ignored. Sigourney Weaver gives a commanding performance as Alice, arguably as affecting and effective as the work that earned Hillary Swank the Oscar this year for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in `Boys Don't Cry.' This is quite simply some of the best work Weaver has ever done, and it's a shame that she has not enjoyed the kind of acclaim that would accompany such an accomplishment in a perfect world. Which adds some irony to the whole thing, inasmuch as part of what this film is attempting to convey (and does so, successfully) is that we do not, in fact, live in a perfect world. All that aside, this is a memorable portrayal, in which Weaver exhibits a phenomenal depth and range of emotion.
The field was strong in the Supporting Actress category this year (Angelina Jolie received the gold for `Girl Interrupted'), but Julianne Moore's performance here stands alongside any of those honored with a nomination for their work. Like Weaver, Moore faced the challenge of creating a character that is so mainstream and `normal'-- one of those everybody's neighbor or the-clerk-at-the-store type of roles-- that the real difficulty lay in making it look so natural, which when successfully effected, makes it all look so `easy.' Which is exactly what Moore did with her portrayal of Theresa. And-- again, like Weaver-- it's a performance for which she has never received the deserved acknowledgement. Suffice to say, it's terrific work, and a big part of what makes this film so emotionally stirring.
Also effective is David Strathairn as Alice's self-absorbed husband, Howard, a man suffering from a terminal case of tunnel vision. How good he is here, in fact, can be measured by the feelings of disdain he manages to evoke toward his character, which at times, is quite substantial.
The supporting cast includes Arliss Howard (Reverdy), Louise Fletcher (Nellie), Sara Rue (Debbie) Nicole Parker (Sherry) and Aunjanue Ellis (Dyshett). An ardently thought provoking film, `A Map of the World' invites a sense of introspection and reflection; a film that's definitely going to make you do some thinking. 9/10.
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