Courtesy Photo
Opened: Thursday, December 25, 1997
Rated: R

Adapted & directed by Atom Egoyan

Starring Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Arsinee Khanjian, Alberta Waton, Maury Chaykin, Brooke Johnson, Earl Pastko, & David Hemblen

"The Sweet Hereafter"

In "The Sweet Hereafter," Ian Holm plays an ambulance-chasing lawyer who arrives in a Canadian mountain hamlet to sign up grieving parents for a lawsuit in the wake of a fatal school bus accident.

If that was all there was to it, director Atom Egoyan ("Exotica") might have been credited with taking a cinematically handsome pot-shot at lawyers. But this film is intrinsically much, much deeper.

The naked emotion of tragedy weighs on every frame, and a great deal of it comes from Holm himself. As much as the audience would like to dismiss him as an opportunist, we can't because are witness to his own ongoing familial suffering as well.

He honestly wants to help these families recover somehow from the loss of their children, in part because his own daughter is lost to him in a heroine-addicted cloud from which she emerges to contact him only when she is broke, homeless or in jail.

"I am here to give your anger a voice," he tells the victims' parents. And he makes us want to believe him.

The story of the bus crash, and by association the history of the town, is told through Holm's interviews with survivors and parents. Similar to the scenes in "Dead Man Walking" in which Sister Helen Prejean visits the families of the murder victims, these interviews become cascades of bottled anger, anguishing sorrow, regret, guilt and pity.

Also emerging from this quiltwork of emotion come long buried secrets of affairs, incest and other unpleasantness that put many of the families on edge.

Ian Holm ("Big Night," "The Fifth Element"), who has been doing excellent work for years but is only now becoming widely recognized as one of filmdom's most versatile talents, brings to his opportunistic lawyer a quiet, somehow dignified shame.

He recognizes he is in the unpleasant business of assigning blame in the wake of a child's death, but convinces himself he's on a righteous path as an outlet for the energy he can't risk spending on his indignatious daughter.

In one of the film's early scenes, Holm nearly comes apart when his cell phone rings and he knows it's her. The tension between father and child is painful to watch as he says "I need to know what state you're in before I know how to talk to you."

This anxiety is contrasted by flashbacks to a time in her early childhood when she nearly died from a spider bite that swelled her throat. He is told by doctors that he may have to perform a makeshift tracheotomy before medical care arrives and in an eerily calm sequence shot from Holm's perspective we see the infant girl on his lap, one hand cradling her head and the other nervously gripping a knife.

But Holm's story is only part of the movie. The film follows the effects of the crash on several people, the most remarkable of which is the single teenage survivor, played by Sarah Polley, a young Uma Thurman look-alike who deserves an equal share of the credit for "Hereafter's" intensity.

Suddenly paralyzed from the waist down, her entire life is changed, yet she seems the most introspective about the accident -- perhaps in part because of the way it alters her very suspect relationship with her father.

Based on a novel by Russell Banks, "The Sweet Hereafter" was lovingly translated to film by Egoyan. His remarkably intimate script and his icy blue photography perfectly package this tale of a large tragedy begetting many smaller misfortunes.

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