Working from a Russell Banks novel, the Canadian writer/director shows us with unfailing fluency how the crash of a school bus--and the deaths of fourteen children--affect the grieving citizens of a remote mountain town in British Columbia. Bit by bit, we come to know their dark secrets and hidden passions and the ways in which they come to cope with a world forever changed. The agent of these revelations is one Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) a somber big-city lawyer who comes to town in the hope of building a class-action damage suit among the angry and wary families.
Significantly, Stevens knows about loss already. His daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks--real-life daughter of the novelist) has been a drug addict for ten years, and she is now as dead to him as the victims on the bus are to their parents.
If you sense major metaphor here, you're right. Banks and Egoyan both say they're fascinated by the "archaeology of the family" (which implies disintegration), and this resolutely unsentimental parable about lost children clearly has as much to do with the failure of Western culture to hold itself and its people together as it does with a tragedy in a little town we've never heard of. Still, the details of the story are so specific and so sharply drawn that they take on a life of their own--the desperate secret love affair of a mechanic (Bruce Greenwood) and the unhappily married owner of a motel (Alberta Watson); the pride and guilt of the bus driver (Gabrielle Rose), who saw the children she transported as her own; the agonies of the grieving parents and siblings in search of meaning in an event so terminally irrational.
Holm's performance as the troubled lawyer, whose own emotional blockades are loosened up in the course of his work, is a thing of beauty--strong, subtle and heartbreaking. But a young actress named Sarah Polley (a member of Egoyan's more-or-less permanent company of actors) is every bit his equal. As Nicole Burnell, an aspiring teenage songwriter who survives the bus crash but is paralyzed by her injuries, Polley becomes the film's true center--a girl with a secret and the brave force through which the town can start to heal and enter a "sweet hereafter" of wisdom and acceptance.
Blessedly, there's not a fleck of sap in these proceedings, least of all in Egoyan's use (a departure from Banks's novel) of Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and its vision of spellbound children as The Sweet Hereafter's thematic cement. Nicole's reading of the poem on the night before the accident--and the haunt of its subsequent meanings as the film moves back and forth in time--is one of the strongest dramatic elements in a film that addresses thorny moral issues without trivializing their attendant emotions or climbing on a soapbox.
The remainder of the cast--including Tom McCamus as Nicole's father and Earl Pastko and Arsinee Khanjian (Egoyan's real-life wife) as an artsy-craftsy couple who've lost their son, too--is just right. So is this extraordinary film, which pulls us down into genuine human darkness but has the grace to let us glimpse the light again.
The Sweet Hereafter.
Written by Atom Egoyan, from a novel by Russell Banks. Produced and directed by Atom Egoyan. With Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose and Tom McCamus.