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The Sweet Hereafter

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Sweet Hereafter

Starring: Ian Holm, Maury Chaykin
Director: Atom Egoyan
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Gabrielle Rose, Peter Donaldson, Brooke Johnson, David Hemblen, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Earl Pastko



Review by Walter Frith
4 stars out of 4

Director Atom Egoyan has made not only his finest film but his most important statement yet with 'The Sweet Hereafter'. Also written for the screen by Egoyan, based on the novel by Russell Banks, the film is a grim tale of a small Canadian town struggling to get on with their emotional lives after a bus accident in the town kills a group of children. This immense tragedy, told out of sequence, is told without the trappings of the usual Hollywood standard, using no heroic characters to bring justice to an injustice, using no courtroom scenes with all their pretentious speech making and most importantly the film moves in a dreamlike manner to echo the depressing manner of a nightmare.

Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), is a lawyer who is not out to be a heroic star like he might be in a big Hollywood studio production. He is an honest and somewhat humble individual who makes contact with the families of the deceased youngsters in the hopes of bringing a class action suit against someone involved with the bus company. Through a calculated series of visits he begins to slowly turn the grief of the families into a more intense anger than they're already feeling and I'm sure his motives are all for the best because he is convinced there is more to the incident than just a simple accident. Stephens is facing alienation from his own daughter as she eludes him to pursue a life of depravity by becoming a drug addict, traveling with derelicts and eventually testing positive for the AIDS virus. Through several telephone contacts he has with her in the film, the audience is drawn to feel as if they aren't father and daughter at all although the film makes it clear that they are through a brief series of flashbacks involving Holm's care for his child when she was an infant.

More powerful than anything in the film is the intense bonding we see between some of the parents and their children and the eventual separation they encounter through death. Another character, Nicole (Sarah Polley) is older than the other children who died and is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after the wreck. Her hopes of becoming a rock star are quickly dashed by her predicament and she is instrumental in the film's outcome as her deposition given to the case may decide things. Her character is the most sympathetic and is the best supporting performance in the film. As for Ian Holm, I was overwhelmed by his performance as the lawyer who wants to reach out and also be a friend to the families. Just one look at him tells you his underlining concern is not profit but concern. The performances of both Holm and Polley are well worth Oscar nominations as is Egoyan's direction and the film itself is a worthy contender for Best Picture..

The most impressive thing about Egoyan's direction of the film is the way each family involved in the tragedy is interviewed and confronted by Stephens. The individual frustration each one of them feels and in the case of the bus driver, guilt, is a testament to Egoyan's ability to make a real story work by making each character as important as any other. This is as real a film as you'll ever see with the most searing dramatic overtones you're ever likely to encounter in the movies.

Copyright 1997 Walter Frith

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