This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
There is a pounding that starts inside the heads of certain kinds of people when they're convinced they're right. They know in theory all about being cool and diplomatic, but in practice a great righteous anger takes hold, and they say exactly what they think, in short and cutting words. Later they cool off, dial down, and vow to think before they speak, but then the red demon rises again in fury against those who are wrong or stupid--or seem at the moment to be.
Alice Goodwin, the Wisconsin farm woman played by Sigourney Weaver in "A Map of the World," is a woman like that. She has never settled comfortably inside her own body. She is not entirely reconciled to being the wife of her husband, the mother of her children, the teacher of her students. She is not even sure she belongs on a farm. You sense she has inner reservations about everything, they make her mad at herself, and sometimes she blurts out exactly what she's thinking, even when she shouldn't be thinking of it.
This trait leads to a courtroom scene of rare fascination. We've seen a lot of courtrooms in the movies, and almost always we know what to expect. The witnesses will tell the truth or lie, they will be effective or not, and suspense will build if the film is skillful. "A Map of the World" puts Alice Goodwin in the witness box, and she says the wrong thing in the wrong way for reasons that seem right to her but nobody else. She'd rather be self-righteous than acquitted.
This quality makes her a fascinating person, in one of the best performances Weaver has given. We can't take our eyes off her. She is not the plaything or the instrument of the plot. She fights off the plot, indeed: The movement of the film is toward truth and resolution, but she hasn't read the script and is driven by anger and a deep wronged stubbornness. She begins to speak, and we feel enormous suspense. We care for her. We don't want her to damage her own case.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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