Filmmaker Firsts: Atom Egoyan

#4: The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – dir. Atom Egoyan

This film is not one for all audiences, but if you are willing to try it, you will experience one of Russell Banks’ typically powerful stories. Egoyan’s adaptation of the 1991 Banks novel concerns the aftermath of a tragedy that claims the lives of most of a small town’s schoolchildren. A lawyer is left to pick up the pieces and attempt to get justice for the families while he simultaneously deals with his own troubled daughter. To make matters more complex, the film has a fluid sense of time, slipping back and forth between 1995 (when the accident occurred) and 1997 (long after the lawyer’s dealings with the town, when he is on his way to meet his daughter). Instead of having a typical sense of past/present/future, everything seems to be happening at the same time, the events being recalled instantly rather than having a feeling of far-off memories.

The Sweet Hereafter is a story of innocence lost and of the ways that people try to comprehend “life before” and “life after” a major event changes their lives. It is also a story of secret lives hidden below the surface and the ways that a persona can be split in two to cope with certain inexplicable situations.

The film is about more than just dealing with tragedy; it is about the dynamics between parents and children. Violence, abuse and the specter of death can take many forms in family life, not just in public cases affecting large groups of people. The film is about dealing with loss, dealing with new (perhaps unhappy) beginnings and whether or not some things can ever be forgotten or forgiven.

The tale of the Pied Piper is woven into the narrative, taking on many meanings depending on which part of the plot or subtext you analyze. The poem lends an element of allegory to the proceedings, making the film an even more haunting and disturbing tale than it already is. Egoyan’s decisions on how to structure the film, including the editing by Susan Shipton, make the movie all the more heart-rending, much more so than if the story had been told in linear, chronological order.

Above all the film is worth seeing for its skilled actors. Ian Holm, long one of cinema’s most underrated actors, gives a bravura performance as the lawyer trying to win money for the families of the deceased and injured. Even without dialogue, his eyes express so much. Other highlights among the cast are Sarah Polley as the lone child survivor, Tom McCamus as her father, Gabrielle Rose as the bus driver, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinée Khanjian and Albert Watson as three parents of the children killed and Stephanie Morgenstern as a former friend of Holm’s daughter. The scenes involving Holm’s daughter have some unfortunate overacting on her part (nepotism in the casting: she’s played by Caerthan Banks, daughter of Russell), but otherwise the ensemble is pretty solid. I ask you to give this movie a try.

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