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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Canadian Film Review: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

* * * *

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley

It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget I am bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me,
And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And found myself outside the hill,
Left alone againt my will

- "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Robert Browning

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is not a film about discovering the cause of a terrible accident, nor is it a revenge drama, a story about a lawyer on a crusade for justice, or even a peek behind the curtain hiding the secrets of a small Canadian community. It isn’t even really about the dead, but a lament for those who survive and are forced to carry on hollowed by the loss. The characters move forward as if dragging weights behind them and yet the film itself is graceful, not intruding on their pain but stepping delicately around it.

Much of the story focuses on Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a lawyer who comes to the town to recruit the residents in a class action suit against the makers of the school bus that went off the road and through the icy lake. The residents look at him with suspicion, but he’s not a money-grubbing ambulance chaser. He approaches the situation not with greedy excitement, but with resignation and the sadness of his own experiences. He has a daughter who is as good as dead, so lost is she in drug addiction. He knows sorrow and is driven by the need to hold someone accountable – if not for his own family tragedy, than those of others.

Some of the families join his cause, including Risa (Alberta Watson) and Wendell (Maury Chayken), who provide Stevens with a rundown of the other residents in town; the Ottos (Earl Pastko and Arsinee Khanjian), artists described by everyone else as hippies; and the Burnells, whose daughter, Nicole (Sarah Polley), is one of the few survivors of the accident. In scenes which take place prior to the accident, Nicole reads from “The Pied Piper,” unsuspecting of the way in which she will come to identify with the boy left behind. Like him she has a physical reminder of the tragedy, as she’s left paralyzed in the accident, and she must contend with the loneliness of being the only child left in town and the responsibility of, essentially, living for all those children who will be forever frozen in time. She also identifies strongly with the Pied Piper character. When asked why the Piper leads the children away rather than using his powers to force the townspeople to pay him the money they had promised him, she says simply that he does it because he’s angry. Nicole is angry, too, and at a crucial moment tells a lie in order to hurt the person who has made her angry.

There is a lot to this story, much of which gets left unsaid and that silence, that absence of words that ought to be there, makes it all the more powerful. Egoyan doesn’t allow the emphasis to be on the crash; as the story moves back and forth between the time before and the time after the accident, it keeps touching on that fateful trip, watching the bus make its way over the snow covered road with a feeling of the inevitable rather than the ominous. As far as direction goes, there is absolutely no room for improvement – Egoyan’s work is confident and masterful and the images he’s created are haunting.

Ian Holm and Sarah Polley do most of the heavy lifting as far as the actors go, though there’s not a bad performance in the bunch. Polley is an actress that I’ve always liked and here, as elsewhere, she suggests a maturity far beyond her years. Her soulful performance stands out even in a film where everything is top notch.

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