Scott Elliott directs this emotionally affecting drama about one woman's difficult journey into forgiving and making peace with herself. The screenplay by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt is based on Jane Hamilton's popular novel set in a rural Wisconsin town. Sigourney Weaver turns in an extraordinary performance as Alice Goodwin, a part-time school nurse and mother of two daughters. She's married to Howard (David Strathairn), a slow and methodical dairy farmer who has a hard time appreciating his wife's sarcasm and bluntness.
Alice's fall from grace comes one afternoon when she's babysitting her best friend Theresa's (Julianne Moore) daughters. The youngest wanders away and drowns in a pond next to the house. Alice is shattered, and instead of accepting this tragedy as an accident, the townsfolk label her an irresponsible woman. While still twisting in guilt, she is hauled off to prison when a neighbor's son from the school accuses her of sexual abuse. Even with the help of his wealthy mother (Louise Fletcher), Howard is unable to raise the $100,000 needed for her bail.
In the most unusual development in this unpredictable drama, Alice finds her experience in prison to be good medicine for her soul. She reads novels and keeps to herself during the three-month period leading up to her trial. Convinced that the charges against her will be proven false, she begins to make peace with herself. Forgiveness is not a once-and-for-all event but a process whereby the heart is slowly softened and healed.
Eventually, Howard sells the dairy farm to raise money for her bail and the trial goes forward. Therese, even though still hobbled by her loss, stands by her friend. The last scenes in A Map of the World illustrate what D. Patrick Miller observes in his book on this spiritual practice: "Forgiveness blossoms at a certain moment in time, when you are ripe and ready to release some of the dead past. It is the intent to forgive that actually speeds up time, collapsing old schedules of suffering and bringing unimagined possibilities inestimably nearer."