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A Map of the World

When one thinks of Sigourney Weaver, images of the strong women she has portrayed on screen flutter by quickly: Ripley in the "Alien" franchise, Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist," Paulina Escobar in "Death and the Maiden," even her brilliantly comic turns in "Ghostbusters" and as the boss from hell in "Working Girl."

This gifted actress is no shrinking violet. Weaver's height and her beauty may partly be factors, and "vulnerable" isn't an adjective that springs to mind. Yet, she has displayed it on screen, most recently in the moody "The Ice Storm," and as good as she was in that film, her performance as Janey Carver was merely a warm-up for her tour de force in "A Map of the World."

Having read Jane Hamilton's novel, I have to admit that Weaver seemed an odd choice for the part, but she won me over almost immediately. Alice Goodwin is depicted as flighty and eccentric, an urbanite who moves to rural Wisconsin with her family so her husband Howard (David Strathairn) can operate a dairy farm.

Weaver perfectly projects the harried nature of a woman trying to do too much. In the long expository opening, the camera catches all the details of a house that looks real and lived-in, especially one with two small children. Clothes and toys are strewn about, the TV blares, the children are tetchy and the husband proves helpless.

Alice is an outsider in her own home as well as in the community, where she works as a school nurse. Her tendency to blurt out what's on her mind can rankle (on the last day of school, she jokes to another teacher about all the evil things she thinks about doing to the kids). While on the telephone with her best friend Theresa (a terrific Julianne Moore), Alice disparages the parenting skills of a coffee shop waitress (Chloe Sevigny, channeling her patented low-class mode) and is overheard by the woman.

The leisurely pace of the film is one of its graces so that when tragedy finally strikes, it affects with an almost primal force. Alice has agreed to baby-sit Theresa's daughters and while searching for her bathing suit is momentarily distracted by the titular object, a drawing she made when her mother died. She is not gone long, but it's time enough for her youngest charge to slip out and drown in the pond on their property. The accident tears apart her friendship with Theresa and fills her with culpability so that when the waitress' son accuses her of child abuse, she capitulates to incarceration as punishment.

Even in prison, she refuses to consort with the other inmates, sealing herself off in her own pain and grief. Weaver brilliantly conveys the character's conflict and self-loathing. Alice is indeed an outcast and outsider, and the arc of the film is her return to a form of normalcy.

Acclaimed stage director Scott Elliot makes an auspicious debut behind the camera. He knows how to position and move the camera and clearly has a way with actors, evidenced in the strong performances including Louise Fletcher as Howard's slightly imperious mother, Aunjanue Ellis, Bruklin Harris, Sarah Rue and Nicole Ari Parker as Weaver's fellow inmates, and especially Arliss Howard as Weaver's lawyer. Special mention goes to the children as well, real-life sisters Darla and Kayla Perlmutter as Weaver's daughters and Marc Donato as her accuser.

Kudos also go to screenwriters Peter Hedges and Polly Platt and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for their contributions. But it's Weaver's show, and she hits a new pinnacle in her already impressive career.

* MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality and language.

"A Map of the World"

Sigourney Weaver: Alice Goodwin

Julianne Moore: Theresa Collins

Arliss Howard: Paul Reverdy

David Strathairn: Howard Goodwin

Chloe Sevigny: Carole Mackessy

A First Look presentation. Director Scott Elliott. Screenplay Peter Hedges and Polly Platt. Novel Jane Hamilton. Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey. Editors Craig McKay and Naomi Geraghty. Music Pat Metheny. Production Designer Richard Toyon. Costume Designer Suzette Daigle. Set Decorator Megan Less. Art Director Kei Ng. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.