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 two-year-old daughter accidentally drowns in the back pond. Alice blames herself and masochistically 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. 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 bestselling books must become movies. The other is that most "serious" actresses 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 (Sigourney'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.
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 are 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. But it may make one wonder: Who goes to the movies to make themselves feel this bad?