It's hard to imagine a more relentlessly lugubrious basis for a movie than Jane Hamilton's 1994 novel A Map of the World. The story is about Alice Goodwin, a school nurse in a small town, whose neighbor's 2-year-old daughter accidentally drowns in the back pond. Alice blames herself and punishes herself with guilt. Since her neighbor was also her best friend, she becomes extremely emotionally isolated. At the height of her depression, she's charged with child abuse and sent to jail, during which time her husband has to sell the farm, which was his lifelong dream, in order to make her bail and pay for a lawyer. While in prison, she is beaten, and her family become outcasts. Endless guilt, introspection, isolation, and depression follow. And did we mention guilt?
All of this can work on the page, of course. Hamilton's prose is an insightful look at the emotional makeup of someone dealing with loss, and its nonlinear, free-association style, filled with flashbacks and should-have-beens, is an effective portrait of the way a grieving mind works. Still, most moviegoers aren't quite masochistic enough to sit through two hours of endless emotional pain, so why adapt such a story to the big screen? Two reasons come to mind. One is that Hollywood logic dictates that best-selling books must become movies. The other is that most “serious” actresses (and actors, to a lesser degree) love nothing more than to show their range by playing characters undergoing nervous breakdowns. Hence the involvement of Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore. The usual dearth of decent leading roles for women didn't hurt, either.
Fortunately, I'm happy to report that the film version of A Map of the World, helmed by first-time director Scott Elliott, has squeezed out a linear narrative from Hamilton's novel and lightened things up somewhat with some star casting, a little humor, and even some gratuitous nudity (Weaver's). In the character of Alice, Weaver manages to find the dark humor that is obscured by the unremitting emotional self-flagellation in the text. Julianne Moore is always a capable actress and brings Theresa, mother of the dead toddler, to life well, although her movie-star good looks are at odds with the character, who wore glasses and tied-back hair in the book. As Alice's husband, Howard, David Strathairn is essentially playing the same kind of man's man he often portrays, most recently in Limbo, but again, there's a visual problem: Howard is supposed to be the tower of strength Alice counts on in a crisis, but Strathairn looks like a cheap sight gag next to Weaver, who must have a good six inches on him at the very least.
Rounding out the cast are Arliss Howard as lawyer Reverdy (mysteriously changed from the novel's “Rafferty”; perhaps Howard didn't look Irish enough), and two more great actresses, this time in their stereotypical roles: Chloë Sevigny as a white-trash waitress, and Louise Fletcher as Alice's mother-in-law who, if not quite from hell, must hail from somewhere in the vicinity of purgatory. Sevigny and Fletcher by now can do this stuff in their sleep, and if they didn't both have distinctive looks, they wouldn't particularly stand out here. Howard is less generic, doing his best with an abbreviated version of the novel's most interesting character. Most of the quirkier aspects of his persona are, sadly, brushed over, but this is Alice's story, after all, and the movie's already in excess of two hours long.
It's hard to shake the feeling that A Map of the World might have been better served as a Lifetime movie or as Hallmark fodder. The nudity would have had to go, but the subject matter of false sexual abuse charges and family tragedy is tailor-made for the movie-of-the-week demographic. On the other hand, the film doesn't handle the subject matter with the excessive sentimentality or oppressive sense of family values that those movies usually live or die on, so perhaps it's just as well. (The story even implies that prison may be the best cure for a nervous breakdown!) But it may make one wonder: Who, exactly, is this film designed to appeal to? Even with Hamilton's constant downer atmosphere muffled, the premise is going to sound like a chick flick to guys — the kiss of death. Yet it's not slick or romantic enough to be a great date movie. And it's not even really life-affirming in the traditional sense. Is it well-made? Absolutely. But unless some kind of social issue is in place or there's the promise of some kind of cathartic climax, who goes to the movies to make themselves feel this bad?