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The Sweet Hereafter

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 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 Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

Canadian director Atom Egoyan is one of the few true visionaries in the film world today. He consistently deals in themes of forbidden desires, melancholy loss, murder, and mourning. "The Adjuster" and the excellent "Exotica" are rare examples of films that break through the facade of cheap sentimentality and aim to reveal our innermost secrets and desires. Egoyan's new film "The Sweet Hereafter," an adaptation of a Russell Banks novel, is a hauntingly expressive work about a school bus accident that leaves a small town in despair.

The brilliant Ian Holm stars as Mitchell Stevens, a forlorn attorney journeying to a small town in the snowy hills of British Columbia to represent the parents of children killed in a school bus accident. He wants to represent their grief, and looks to recompense by filing a class-action suit against the bus company. "There is no such thing as an accident," declares Mitchell. At first glance, he might seem like a cold-hearted lawyer in it for the money, but we start to see a man - tortured by his own suppressed grief - coming to terms with the tragedy and its aftermath. Mitchell's grief is his loveless junkie daughter who frequently calls him for money on his cell phone.

Naturally, the townspeople's grief is of greater consequence. There's the hippie couple whose adopted son died in the accident; another parent (Bruce Greenwood) who followed the bus carrying his two children and is the only witness; the guilt-ridden bus driver (Gabrielle Rose); and, most memorably, a teenager (Sarah Polley) who survived the accident and is confined to a wheelchair, and has strong love ties to her father (droopy-eyed Tom McCamus). The Greenwood character tries to convince Mitchell and the devastated parents to drop the lawsuit, but the some of the parents need the money if they win the case.

All the characters in "The Sweet Hereafter" are flawed and despondent because of familial relations except for the surviving teenager. In many ways, she is the most mature character in the film because she sees past the facade of the lawsuit and doesn't want to be manipulated by anyone, not even her affectionate father.

Mitchell sees himself as a grieving parent because he lost his own child. When Mitchell is on the plane, he sees a former friend of his daughter's and he confides in her about his daughter's past accidents with clinics and hospitals. Mitchell is naturally empathetic when interviewing the grieving, guilty parents about certain details of the accident - he's a guilty parent, too, trying to erase the memory of his own daughter.

"The Sweet Hereafter" is an understated, chilling film of great searing power, and the actors certainly lend it credence. Ian Holm, one of the finest actors in the world, manages to make Mitchell Stevens a sympathetic character who's eagerly trying to erase his suppressed feelings towards his daughter - the lawsuit makes him start to care deeply about her. It is superb, finely tuned acting that should have gained him an Oscar nomination. Sarah Polley ("Exotica") is as mysterious and alluring a young actress as any other - she makes her teen character both ambiguous and benevolent (she reads "The Pied Piper" to children) allowing us to see a gradual connection between the relationship with her father and the school bus tragedy. These are characters whom you will not likely forget.

Director Atom Egoyan and cinematographer Paul Sarossy successfully make the wintry Canadian landscape as threatening and haunting as possible. The depiction of the townspeople's dwellings is just as disturbing - we see drab, candlelit houses; gloomy motel rooms; and pictures of children and families on walls that take own a life of their own. The actual school bus accident is ominously presented in one long take as it skids off the road and falls into a frozen lake - this whole sequence, shown towards the middle of the film, is as tragic and emotional as anything in "Titanic."

The writing by Egoyan cleverly and astutely takes us back and forth during the aftermath of the accident pinpointing minute details about the uneventful day, and revealing the identities of the townspeople and their fears, desires and secrets.

Perhaps "The Sweet Hereafter" is not as enveloping or as rhythmic as "Exotica," but it is a superbly realized, unsentimental, poetic and important film of how a tragedy can change a small town. By the end of the film, with its sense of emotional chaos, you might think, strangely enough, that the townspeople are responsible for this tragedy.

Copyright 1997 Jerry Saravia

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