The film begins and ends with narration by Alice Goodwin (Weaver), good wife and mother, and in these two moments, there is the assurance of meaning and promise beyond the mundane, beyond the slings and arrows of outrageous circumstances. But unlike Jane Hamilton's novel, the film's narrator then disappears for 125 minutes, leaving the audience feeling as bereft as the poor suffering families on the screen.
Alice and Howard Goodwin (Strathairn) are barely making ends meet on their rundown midwestern dairy farm. Alice has to make up for the shortfall by being a school nurse. This is not Martha Stewart's farm life by any stretch. Alice is disorganized and frustrated; without her voice poetically describing her love for her husband and his romantic view of farming, their lives would look merely messy and trying.
Enter hideous tragedy. For once it's not cancer, that hackneyed Hollywood plot point, but something far more challenging and complex.
Shortly after Alice's neighbor Theresa (Julianne Moore, in an excellent turn as a decent, normal person) drops off her two little girls to play with the Goodwin daughters, Alice goes upstairs to find her bathing suit. She comes across her long-forgotten map of the world which she drew as a child. Not a bad thing to be doing on a sunny morning, except that when she returns to her charges, the littlest child has disappeared. Alice runs outside to find Theresa's two year-old lying face down in the small lake.
The brain-dead baby lingers, but finally dies. Alice goes into a deep depression, unable to even dress herself, let alone take care of her kids. Husband Howard's judgmental mother, a perfectly cast Louise Fletcher, arrives to cook, clean and look askance. When Alice runs out of the funeral, later claiming that "I'm trying to have a nervous breakdown and no one will let me," the sense is that things couldn't get worse.
But they do, and in short order. The sheriff arrives with a warrant for Alice's arrest for molesting a six year-old boy at the school where she's a nurse.
But here the story takes a surprising turn. Alice finds being in jail with all the lowlife and quasi-deranged to be comforting. Locked away, she is free to read and muse, and most importantly, pay for her sins--sins the neighbors are all too happy to distort to kingdom come.
Scott Elliott's confident direction keeps the film from descending into a cliched courtroom cliffhanger. Rather, he concentrates on Weaver, allowing her mythic dimension of the movie to emerge.
What makes this an honest film is its conceit that bad fortune can strike at any minute, and without warning. What is enduring is the underlying message that even the worst of times can be opportunities to become more alive, more human. David Strathairn's Howard, for instance, stops living in his head to become what one would imagine Jesus would be like as a forty year-old man without the bail money for his wife.He pulls himself together, dies to his dream, and sells the farm.
The bereaved mother of the dead child, a good Catholic, nearly loses her life-force, questioning everything seen and unseen, before drawing on her deep well of humanity to testify on her friend's behalf.
Fans of Hamilton's novel will realize anew the limitations of film. Undeveloped here is Alice's journey to forgiving herself, and Howard who, she realizes in jail, has betrayed her in hundreds of little ways.
Indeed, Hamilton's story is too complex, too meaty, too layered for any director, any writer, or brilliant actors to bring completely to life. I especially missed the elegant prose that throughout the novel provided the sweet scent of hope, allowing the harshness of life a proper measure of light.