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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows ---
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
3.  Walter Frith read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
4.  Brian Koller read the review ---
5.  Jerry Saravia read the review ---

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Atom Egoyan's lyrical approach to the troubles afflicting a remote town in British Columbia has virtually all the attributes an intelligent moviegoer looks for in a film. By eschewing the special effects that stamp a film as either Hollywood-kitsch or pretentious nonsense, he afford exceptional import to a single visual image which can devastate his audience. "The Sweet Hereafter" employs the superb acting talent of Ian Holm in the role of a lawyer, whose amoral interference in a community's severe tragedy underscores the grief of its citizenry. Perhaps the film's most striking merit is Egoyan's juxtaposition of Robert Browning's poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," with the direction taken by anguish-stricken families in the aftermath of a disaster. And Egoyan cleverly likens the attorney's personal heartache with the suffering of the people he is to represent in a class-action lawsuit.

Adapting a novel by Russell Banks which is a fragmented as the film, Egoyan lends his personal touch to a moral tale, exploring the ways in which the sudden death of fourteen children in a school-bus accident changes the isolated village. To their credit, neither novelist Banks nor filmmaker Egoyan attempts to simplify matters by contrasting a happy, solid, truly bonded and joyous population with a numbingly sad and changed people. Dark elements existed previous to the tragedy, though the accident does provide a an opportunity for its female lead--Sarah Polley in the role of a young woman who is crippled by the mishap--to cleanse herself and to some degree the entire surroundings.

The incident which changes the face of the tiny rural area of Sam Dent, British Columbia, is the skidding of a school bus from an icy road and its subsequent sinking into the icy waters of a frozen lake below, killing fourteen of its youthful riders and maiming several others--including its guilt-ridden driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose). The event itself is portrayed almost as an anti-climax, occurring well into the movie, a choice which emphasizes the director's major intention. As the film opens Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) is stuck in a car-wash, frustrated not so much by the almost farcical situation he is in as by a phone call he has received from his daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), a desperate young woman who is a drug addict and repeatedly contacts her father for money. We soon gather that the anguished Stephens has set himself upon the Sam Dent community not primarily to enrich himself by the one-third cut he would receive as his fee for prosecuting a successful civil suit. He uses the circumstance to elude his own psychic pain at the "loss" of his daughter, plunging compulsively into his work to forget his own misery. His seriousness and apparent sincerity win over the folks of the town who have suffered the loss of their children, and most of the aggrieved sign on to the class- action suit, trusting him in much the way the children of the village of Hamelin followed the Pied Piper. The one major holdout, a widower (Bruce Greenwood) who was accustomed to following the school bus each morning in his own car, threatens the lawyer with physical harm, insisting that the people do not care about the money but desire simply to be left alone in their grief. By contrast, Sam (Tom McCamus), the youthful father of crippled teenager Nicole (Sarah Polley), arouses the suspicions of his daughter by being greedily drawn to the lawyer's promise of big bucks beyond what the school's insurance has already paid to the injured families.

Egoyan highlights sordid relationships which, in the hands of a hack, could have been the grist for the soap-opera mills. Billy Ansell (Greenwood) is carrying on an affair with the unhappy Risa Walker (Alberta Watson), and even worse, Sam, who relates to his daughter as would flower children to one another during the Woodstock era, is regularly committing incest with his not unwilling teenager.

Despite the unhappiness of so many in the community even before the accident, "The Sweet Hereafter" shows graphically and yet in an understated, lyric tone, the ways in which the disaster has permanently changed the face of the backwater burg. Egoyan has filmed his work in a style whose fragmentation adds much to its inflections, switching with uncanny expertise from 1995 to 1997 and back, while periodically crowding several incidents into a single scene as when he focuses on a family argument involving Wendell (Maury Chaykin) and his unhappy wife Risa while allowing us to eavesdrop on a telephone conversation between the lawyer and his woebegone daughter.

Ian Holm centers the entire piece in his extraordinary performance as a pained and prosperous professional who has difficulty coming to grips with the loss of his own daughter, Zoe, to drugs and who is ultimately to accept defeat at the hands of a girl who is younger and wiser than the narcissistic Zoe. "The Sweet Hereafter" is bleak, but offers a tragic air that pays heed to the ultimate dignity of an aggrieved people.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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