The Sweet Hereafter, 1997
Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter is a serenely
powerful, deeply moving tale of loss and healing. At the heart of
the tragedy is a school bus accident in a small Canadian town, resulting
in the death of fourteen children. First, we meet Mitchell Stephens
(Ian Holm), a tort lawyer who comes into town in order to shore up
clients for a class-action lawsuit on the accident. He seems dispassionate
and mechanical about his work, except in his resolute belief that
someone must ultimately pay. Harboring an inner guilt and pain over
his inability to save his own drug-addicted daughter, he, too, bears
the scars of a lost child. The bus driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle
Rose), severely injured from the accident, then provides her deposition
under the gaze of her invalid husband. Surrounded by photographs of
the school children, it is evident that she sees them as the children
she never had. A local mechanic, Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), lost
his children in the accident, but refuses to participate in the lawsuit,
and is overtly hostile to the interloper. Having earlier lost his
wife to cancer, he is already a survivor who understands the cruelty
of fate, and the futility and divisiveness of Mitchell's actions.
Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), permanently crippled from the accident,
provides the final testimony. Robbed of her childhood, she sees the
destructive toll of the lawsuit, and exacts revenge.
aftermath of the tragedy is achronologically documented through four
different narrative perspectives: Mitchell, Dolores, Billy, and Nicole.
Egoyan uses non-linearity as a means of exploring the process of grief.
The bus accident is almost incidental, an accepted fact that only
serves as the catalyst in the film. Inevitably, The
Sweet Hereafter is a story of individual survival: the painful,
intensely personal struggle to find a reason to continue after a profound
loss. We see a glimpse of it in Billy's morning ritual, following
his wife's death, of waving to his children while driving behind the
school bus. Mitchell continues to accept inopportune collect calls
from his incoherent, manipulative daughter, if only to find solace
in the knowledge that she is still alive. At the end of the film,
it is the idea that life does go on, albeit through new and different
rituals, that sustains these characters after their emotional evisceration.
The Sweet Hereafter is a truly remarkable
film, an elegantly realized, heartbreaking testament to the tenacity
of the human spirit.
© Acquarello 1999. All
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