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A MAP OF THE WORLD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore, David Strathairn, Arliss Howard, Chloe Sevigny, Louise Fletcher
Director:  Scott Elliott
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.78:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  USA Home Entertainment
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files, Featurette
Length:  128 Minutes
Release Date:  September 19, 2000

Film ***1/2

A Map of the World is a modest, but surprisingly moving, insightful, and truthful film about tragedy and the way people try to overcome it.  It's smartly written and competently directed, but most of all, superbly acted by an amazing cast.

Alice (Weaver) and her husband Howard (Strathairn) are both making a go of country life.  They are good people, liked by most of the community, though there perhaps remains something of an “outsider” aura around them.  Howard is trying his hand at farm living.  Alice, who's a nurse, works at the local public school, taking care of the sick kids. 

When friend and neighbor Theresa (Moore) lets her young daughters stay with Alice and her kids for a day, tragedy strikes.  One of the girls heads out to the pond by herself and drowns.  It's one of those terrible occurrences where nobody really is to blame, but still hurts those involved so deeply that guilt and heartache easily overcome.

After I assumed the story was going to be about this incident, another one occurs right on the heels of it.  Alice is arrested after a local mother (Sevigny) accuses her of sexually abusing her little boy.  Although we witnessed a bitter confrontation between the two women at the school earlier in the film, the story kind of keeps a distance from the mother for a while, leaving us to wonder if the accusation has any substance, or is merely a vengeful act.  We tend not to believe Alice capable of such an act (at least not consciously), but this one accusation begins a domino effect of parents coming forward with similar claims.  If the claims are indeed false, then Alice is a terrible victim.  Yet, her need to maintain her dignity and her life keep her from acting like one, which doesn't help convince everyone of her innocence.

What struck me most about the movie is not just the core story I've described, though it's certainly a good one.  Rather, I was attracted to the insightful way the film explored the nature of a tragedy, and in particular, the illusion of normalcy.  Alice is most intriguing in this capacity.  In jail, like most accused child molesters, she is assaulted both physically and verbally.  Her world becomes a living hell.  Yet she still nit-picks her visiting husband about the stain on his shirt, as an example.  Under the tremendous weight of the girl who drowned in her care and the pressure of the terrible accusations against her, she struggles to maintain a sense of going on with her life.  As we see later on in the picture, people can and do go on with their lives, but things are rarely ever the same.  Other films might have glossed over that fact.  Here, it's the underlying point.

The two leading women are amongst the best of today's film actresses.  Julianne Moore has made quite an impression in recent years, from her roles in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia to The End of the Affair.  Here, her approach to the mother whose world is turned upside down by the death of her child is perfect.  She's angry, she's hurt, she's extremely vulnerable and confused.  Later in court, she tries to testify on behalf of Alice when her lawyer (Howard), asks the rather ill-advised question:  “would you leave your (other) daughter unchaperoned with Alice?”  He expects a simple yes answer, but we, the audience, hold our breath in anticipation of what she might say.

And not enough can be said about Sigourney Weaver, whose performance as Alice shines like a jewel in the crown of her amazing career.  Alice is one of the most complex characters I've seen in recent memory, and Weaver courageously and determinedly explores every aspect of it in her work.  The depth of her performance is remarkable.  We always see the façade of calmness normalcy on her face, but feel for the ripening turmoil and despair inside.

Director Scott Elliott makes his feature film debut with this picture.  He's a long time and successful veteran of the theatre, and his approach to this movie is indicative of that.  There's very little in the way of distracting camera work; most of it is stationary or with simple, direct movements.  His real skill is in staging what happens in front of the lens, and in his understanding of the characters, which work together to create a film that looks simple on the surface, but quietly and unassumedly manages to explore amazing depths along the way.  He has a theatrical sense of lighting, too, which works well in some of the darker shots:  he instinctively knows where to throw his light, which parts to illuminate and which ones to leave in shadow, and how to use the contrast to bring certain elements into and out of focus for the viewers' eyes. 

Unlike a similarly themed film, The Sweet Hereafter, Elliott chooses not to use his settings as mood indicators.  What we see on film is pretty and straightforward, and doesn't carry the colossal weight or gloominess of the aforementioned picture.  Elliott's approach is to capture the element of sadness in a perfectly ordinary surrounding.  Like Atom Egoyan, Elliott uses some flashbacks in his film, but when he does, he switches to a grittier film stock to always indicate that what we're seeing is in the past.  In other words, he deliberately avoids a non-linear style of storytelling.  The results are maybe less haunting, but more truthful, and more straight to the heart.

But he gets across the strong central image of normalcy as an illusion.  Tragic events occur—sometimes there is blame, other times, there isn't, but to pretend that they can be overlooked and that life can move forward in an unaffected way is false.  Even with characters as strong as Alice and Howard.  They will probably never flourish under the weight of these events.  But they will survive.

Video ***1/2

USA offers a splendid anamorphic transfer for this film, one that captures the natural look Scott Elliott strove for beautifully.  From beginning to end, I noticed no instances of color bleeding, grain, shimmer, or any other compression effects (thanks in part to the dual layering).  Said colors are bright and well contained, and extremely natural in appearance throughout.  Images are generally very sharp and crisp, with only occasional bits of softness in lower light settings.  One aspect of the video that surprised me was the condition of the print, which is not bad, but suffers a little more from dirt and occasional scratches than you'd expect from a movie that's only a year old.  I wonder why?

Audio ***

This two-channel surround mix is perfectly good, though unspectacular.  It certainly suites the nature of the film, which is quiet and contemplative.  Rear channels are mostly non-existent, but are accessed occasionally for some ambient sound effects (water, farm equipment, etc.).  Dialogue is presented cleanly on the forward stage, with small amounts of stereo play to make the listening experience more vivid.  Best of all is guitarist Pat Metheny's beautiful music, which sounds terrific and really accents the picture's moods.

Features **

The disc contains a trailer and talent files for Weaver, Moore, Strathairn and Elliott, plus a 13 minute featurette that's more promotional in nature than informative.  Critical raves about Weaver's work fill the screen in the early moments of the short film.  And deservedly so.

Summary:

A Map of the World is an absorbing, honest drama about the nature of a tragedy and how people try to overcome it when there's no choice.  With an amazing ensemble cast led by two terrific leading women and a quite sense of genuine insight, this overlooked film deserves to find new life and a broader audience on DVD.