The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
[originally posted 23Jul2001]
Atom Egoyan, helming the upcoming film of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, takes a similarly jaundiced look at life in his adaptation of Russell Banks’ acclaimed novel The Sweet Hereafter, based on the true story of a 1989 bus accident which killed the majority of children in a small town. A lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), fighting his own child-related woes, goes to the townspeople in the aftermath of the accident to whip up a case against someone—the bus company, the department of works, anyone. He is excellent, as most lawyers are, at playing on the anger and outrage of the townspeople, and eventually all of them retain him except one. He is joined in his stand against the lawsuit by a rather odd ally, the only survivor of the crash itself, Nicole (Sarah Polley), who just wants the world to leave her, and her town, alone.
There are a lot of good things about this movie. Holm, Polley, and Egoyan vet Tom McCamus (looking his Brad Dourif-est as Polley’s father) are all excellent actors, and a number of scenes in the film unfold with a kind of quiet joy that makes absolutely no sense in the general scheme of the tragedy, but at the same time make all the sense in the world. For all that, though, the movie never really coheres in the way it should; the lawyer’s daughter is too obvious just a mechanism for his rage, the story’s timelines get a bit muddled now and again, etc., but the flaws are minor compared to the strengths. I’d disagree with the vox pop at IMDB, who have placed The Sweet Hereafter in the top 250, but it’s certainly not a bad little film. Almost makes me want to see what Egoyan can cook up with Atwood. ***