The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

D: Atom Egoyan
S: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley

Haunting cine-puzzle from the novel by Russell Banks centred on the efforts of big city lawyer Ian Holm to encourage the people of a remote snow-bound Canadian town to sue following the deaths of their children in a school bus crash. Beneath the surface he encounters layers of psychological conflict and hidden truths which determine the reactions of his would-be clients. Meanwhile he must cope with his drug addicted daughter calling him on his mobile phone to berate him and remind him of his own past and the things that he himself has lost.

The film unfolds somewhat in the manner of Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem, revealing story details only when absolutely necessary and limiting exposition in order to focus attention on the enigma of human behaviour rather than the plot. It becomes a journey to the centre of a psychological labyrinth not only of the individual characters, but the community on the whole. Its concern is with the meaning of loss and the need to face the tragedy on human terms rather than focus on questions of blame and compensation. Neither villain nor hero, Holm embodies the film's troubled heart, on one hand a conniving and manipulating ambulance chaser and on the other a man in obvious pain. Offering a counterpoint is Sarah Polley, who tells the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin to two of the children before their deaths and then herself becomes the one lame boy left behind when she survives but is paralysed. The story comes to serve as a master metaphor in a deliberate echo of the film's actual plot. The children are stolen and those who are left behind must face questions not of why it happened, but what it means for their future. Her initial determination to tell what happened eventually turns to a purposeful lie in order to make her family and friends face the human truths which underlie mere facts.

These textual intricacies are matched by striking visuals. The snow-bound wilderness beautifully reflects the isolation and despair felt by everyone in the film, and Egoyan's camera spares no one from the close scrutiny of calm, focused camera movements and slow zooms which allow the cast to reveal their characters' depths of feeling. Poetic repetitions such as the continual return to the details of the accident and the phone calls from Holm's daughter which function like the voice of his conscience allow the film to thoroughly engage the viewer in the sense of anguish which motivates the action. Nothing is as it first appears, and the deeper into the facts of the case we probe, the more is uncovered. None of it affects the plot as such, but the various revelations allow us to see past it in the same manner as Holm must eventually realise where his own motivations lie. The careful decor of the various parents' homes eventually comes to have as much meaning as their words and actions, and we finally see Holm's sober, urban presence as invasive and destructive. Instead Polley's quiet anger and sense of lost dreams (her ambition to become a rock star) serves as the authentic voice of the people and Holm must return to where he belongs; taking a plane ride home to see his daughter and continue the hopeless struggle to be a father to her.

The film is beautifully crafted and Holm is wonderful in the lead (in quite a different timbre from his performance in The Fifth Element). It is a little slow and perhaps goes on too long for its own good, but in general it should provide a thought-provoking evening's viewing for the attuned. Egoyan's previous work has been on the distinctly cultish and art-house side, and though this film retains tonal and stylistic links with that world, it is generally accessible even to casual audiences. Well worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.