Sweet Hereafter

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One Was Lame and Could Not Dance the Whole of the Way

Aug 15, 2005 (Updated Feb 3, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Action Factor:
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  • Suspense:

Pros:Highly skilled narrative structure; sophisticated treatment of multiple deep themes; strong performances, visuals, and sound

Cons:Some viewers will find the pace slow

The Bottom Line: If you have a sophisticated taste for innovative cinema, Atom Egoyan, a creative independent director from Canada, is going to knock your socks off.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountainside shut fast."

From Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Although Canadian cinema is not so highly developed, yet, as a good many other countries, there're some exciting independent innovators at work, up in the cold country, including David Cronenberg and, especially, Atom Egoyan. If you haven't checked out Egoyan's work yet, this is a good film with which to start. I'll also be reviewing another of his films later this week.

Historical Background: Atom Egoyan was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1960, the son of Armenian refugees. His family moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1963. Egoyan recalls that he made a conscious decision, as he was growing up, to choose assimilation over his native ethnicity. As a teen, he developed an interest in reading the works of Beckett and Pinter and even began writing plays himself. He enrolled in Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where be began studies with the idea of ultimately becoming a diplomat. He also joined the Armenian student association so that he could begin reconnecting with his heritage. He made his first film, there, while still a freshman, and was inspired by the experience to transfer into film studies. His senior project, called Open House, was funded by the Ontario Arts Council.

After graduating, Egoyan began working as a playwright for Tarragon Theater in Toronto, but his preference for film reemerged after Open House was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He was sufficiently motivated by that success to proceed with making Next of Kin (1984) and Family Viewing (1987). Next of Kin earned him a nomination for Canada's Best Director (Genie) Award. His first international recognition, however, came with Speaking Parts (1989), for which he drew on his earlier part-time experience, during adolescence, as a hotel employee. Speaking Parts was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. In the early nineties, he directed such films as The Adjuster (1991), Calendar (1993), Exotica (1994), and A Portrait of Arshile (1995). Exotica was a particular hit, winning the International Critics' Prize at Cannes.

The present film, The Sweet Hereafter, was made by Egoyan in 1997 and greatly extended his international following. The film took the Special Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and its director won Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay awards. Egoyan next directed Felicia's Journey, which premiered at Cannes in 1999. In 2002, he tackled the difficult topic of the Armenian genocide of 1915, with the film Ararat, which was not quite as well received as some of his previous efforts.

Egoyan is married to actress Arsinée Khanjian, whom he casts in all of his films. He also works with a regular set of collaborators that include actors Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Don McKellar, and Sarah Polley; cinematographer Paul Sarossy, composer Mychael Danna, and producer Camelia Frieberg. Egoyan is one of the most original filmmakers, not only in Canada but also anywhere in the world. His idiosyncratic style combines cynicism and irony with explosive political and sexual themes that leave viewers with an indelible impression. One of his recurrent themes is emotional isolation. Many of this films feature a sophisticated elliptical style of narrative development.

The Story: The story in the present film transpires in a nonlinear manner, intermixing past, present, and future events fluidly. For simplicity, the plot synopsis, here, does not precisely follow the sequencing in the film. Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) has come to the small (fictional) town of Sam Dent in British Columbia because he is a personal injury lawyer and the town has recently experienced an almost unthinkable tragedy. A school bus accident resulted in the death of fourteen of the town's children. The bus had slid on a patch of ice and plunged down an embankment and out onto a frozen lake. The ice had then collapsed and the bus had sunk into the lake, killing most of those aboard.

Stevens, we learn, has some personal knowledge of tragedy and loss in his own life. His young adult daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), is a drug addict and prostitute. She has been in and out of countless clinics, rehabilitation centers, detoxification units, and halfway houses, but to no avail. Stevens receives a call from Zoe on his cell phone, as he has many times before, while he is in his car, inside a carwash. He no longer knows how to communicate with his daughter, not knowing what condition she might be in when she calls. Mostly she calls for money and half of what she says consists of manipulative lies to extract that money so she can buy drugs. Stevens loves his daughter, but is deeply pained by her downfall and the expectation that he could lose her at any time.

There are several families in Sam Dent that have lost children and Stevens wants to bring a class action suit, provided he can identify a "culprit" with deep pockets. Maybe the town will do or, if not, the bus manufacturer. First, Stevens will need to be designated by most or all of the families as their representative. He heads to the local motel both because he needs a place to stay and because the owners, Wendell (Maury Chaykin) and Risa Walker (Alberta Watson), are among those that lost a child in the accident – their son Sean (Devon Finn). Stevens soon has the Walkers signed up. Stevens needs to identify parents who will make sympathetic witnesses and the Walkers provide him with the lowdown on all the town folk. Joey Hamilton is out of the question because he steals antiques. Kyle Landstrom is a drunk and the Prescotts are deeply in debt. They won't do. And certainly not the Atwaters and Belledeus – they're all inbred! All things considered, the Ottos, Burnells, and Billy Ansell seem like the best prospects.

As Stevens makes his rounds, he learns some about the town's secrets and we viewers learn even more. The Ottos, Wanda (Arsinée Khanjian) and Hartley (Earl Pastko), are a couple of hippies who lost their adopted son Bear (Simon Baker), an Indian boy. The Burnells, Sam (Tom McCamus) and Mary (Brooke Johnson), got off relatively light. Their younger daughter, Jenny (Allegra Denton), had stayed home that fateful day and their older daughter, Nicole (Sarah Polley), was one of the few survivors, though she's lost the use of her legs. Nicole had fostered aspirations of becoming a rock star and her father was her biggest fan. Too much so, in fact! Sam Burnell had drawn his eldest daughter into an incestuous father-daughter relationship. Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood) has been hit by a veritable triple whammy. He lost his wife, Lydia, to cancer, recently, and, now, his two twins, Jessica (Sarah Rosen Fruitman) and Mason (Marc Donato), in the bus accident. Billy had been so devoted to his kids, after his wife's death, that he had made a practice of following the school bus home everyday, just so he could see his kids staring out the back window of the bus. He had seen the accident first hand but was powerless to do anything about it. Nicole had been the babysitter for the Ansell kids. Billy didn't go out a lot, but he did have his occasional trysts with Risa Walker at her motel, when her husband was out. Except for Billy Ansell, Stevens is easily able to line up all of these folks with his glib lawyerly arguments. "Let me direct your rage. It's up to me to ensure moral responsibility in this society," says Stevens. Then he adds, "I'm not just here to speak for your anger but for the future as well." Ansell, who knows more than the others about dealing with grief, understands that greed is no substitute for pain and merely demeans the memory of the lost ones.

Meanwhile, we learn more about a traumatic event from Zoe's early life. The idyllic family life of Stevens, his wife, Klara, and Zoe had been explosively disrupted when Zoe was just three. A small black widow spider had bitten her. Stevens had to rush her to the hospital, trying to keep her calm as they traveled, to slow the spread of the venom through the circulatory system. The doctor had told him, however, that he might have to perform an emergency tracheotomy – cutting open her throat to reach her wind pipe, if her mouth became too swollen for her to breath. Otherwise, she would die within 2-3 minutes. (It's a relatively easy procedure for someone experienced with it but frightening and traumatic for an amateur to perform. If you cut the carotid artery or the jugular vein, blood gushes forth and it's all over.) So, Stevens had driven the entire route with a sterilized knife in one hand while singing a lullaby. "I was prepared to go all the way," he tells an acquaintance.

During his rounds in Sam Dent, Stevens interviews the driver of the bus, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), who had survived but now wears a neck brace. Her husband, Abbott (David Hemblen), had a recent stroke. Dolores was utterly devoted to the schoolchildren and is beside herself with grief. The loss of fourteen children in a small town is virtually the death of that community's future. She recalls each of the children in detail for Stevens.

The strength of the case rests most especially on Nicole Burnell, one of the few survivors. She's mature for her age and will make a convincing witness. Ironically, she had been wearing a sweater that day that had previously belonged to Lydia Ansell. Billy had given Lydia some of the best of his deceased wife's clothing, commenting that Lydia had looked good in the clothes until she had outgrown them. "What do you mean outgrown them?" Nicole had inquired, but Billy had not answered. Nicole was very good with Billy's children, reading them bedtime stories, especially Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin, some of the lines of which appear at the top and the bottom of this review. The story had proved prescient in relation to the town's tragedy and, also, formative for Nicole's view of things. Nicole also has the incestuous relationship with her father nagging on her mind.

What becomes of the lawsuit? Will Billy Ansell cooperative with the other litigants? What will Nicole have to say when called to testify? What becomes of Zoe? Check out this intriguing film for all of the answers!

Themes: This is a complex film with multiple interrelated themes. It's about grief and how we deal with it. It's about anger that emerges when catastrophes occur and the desire to find a scapegoat onto whom to affix blame. It's about taking responsibility as a community and pulling together rather than pointing fingers or grabbing for a windfall through lawsuits. Too often, people try to cope with tragedy by converting happenstance into negligence. In the end, however, anger can never take the place of grief.

More broadly, the film is about the risk we take whenever we love another human being, especially our children. In each such act of love, there is an inherent risk of loss and pain. The film opens with a pristine image of a man, a woman, and a young child sleeping together peacefully, in perfect harmony. That trio, we later learn, is composed of Mitchell, Klara, and Zoe. Near the end, Mitchell, still consumed by love for his once sweet daughter, is reduced to bearing each successive piece of evidence of Zoe's ever increasing downfall. In Browning's Pied Piper of Hemelin, the village children are led into the mountain by the Piper out of revenge, and the adults in the village are left to grieve. Only one child survived, because he was too lame to keep up. Is that child doomed to forever regret having been left behind from the land where "everything is strange and new?" Can that child, instead, be another kind of Piper, who guides the surviving adults through their unspeakable grief?

Are we, as Mitchell Stevens suggests to Billy Ansell, losing our children to a strange new world anyway? "They're dead to us," says Stevens. "They kill each other in the streets. They wander comatose in shopping malls. They're paralyzed in front of televisions. Something terrible has happened that's taken our children away. It's too late. They're gone." That one, at least, I can answer. Try home-schooling your kids, spending time together as a family instead of plunking the kids in front of the television, and modeling good values for them, and you'll discover that its still not too late to hold onto your children.

Production Values: The script for this film was based on a novel by Russell Banks. The most exceptional thing about this film (and for the films of Egoyan in general), from a production standpoint, is the skill with which he manipulates narrative exposition. The key event, the cataclysmic event, of this film, the bus accident, occurs neither at the beginning nor at the end, as it would in most films. It occurs in the middle. The film very fluidly spirals between events before, during, and after the accident. In the hands of a director or scriptwriter less practiced with this technique, it might all end up in muddled chaos, but Egoyan deftly manages the liquid flow of the story as effortlessly as a gutter directs the flow of rainwater.

Another stellar aspect of the script is the complete absence of clichés or mawkish sentimentality. There's no business here about the idealistic lawyer going after a sleazy corporation. Mitchell Stevens may be a man making a living as an ambulance chaser, but he's also a man who has experienced his own share of pain and loss. We sense, in fact, that a big part of his motivation for doing his job is dealing with his own sense of loss and anger by helping other people deal with theirs. None of the characters in this film are black or white and many of them are competently drawn.

Egoyan makes rich use of symbolism. There's a recurrent wheel theme, including the joyous Ferris wheel at the carnival, the wheels of the bus, and one on a wheelchair. Mitchell Stevens is fittingly trapped in a carwash when he gets the first call from Zoe, with whom he's trapped in a tear-inducing, painful (but dutiful) father-child relationship. Then, of course, there's the highly effective linking of the film's main story to the Browning poem.

Visually, the film is very appealing. The mood of despair is captured by seemingly endless snow-dotted landscapes. The indoor shots are well handled as well, sometimes using multiple layers of the image field, in the manner of Akira Kurosawa. The soundtrack is moody but varied, with several appealing numbers sung by Sarah Polley, who also played the part of Nicole.

Ian Holm has the most difficult role in the film, having to show ambivalence of more than one kind. He's got ambivalent feelings in relation to his daughter. Then, as he traipses around the town of Sam Dent, he has to balance genuine sympathies for the grieving parents with his instincts and motivations as a pragmatic lawyer. Sometimes, he comes across as a slime ball with a big heart. I would have liked his performance even more with a tad more energy to it, but many reviewers rave about it just as it is. Holm's long career has including work in such films as Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Juggernaut (1974), Alien (1979), Time Bandits (1981), Chariots of Fire (1981), Brazil (1985), Wetherby (1985), The Madness of King George (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), in which he played Bilbo Baggins.

Many of the rest of the players in this ensemble cast were drawn from Egoyan's group of regulars. Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Polley, for example, had both appeared in Exotica (1995). Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian, played the part of Wanda Otto, one of the distraught mothers. The performances are very good all around, with Greenwood and Polley the two standouts, after Holm.

Bottom-Line: The New Yorker DVD gives fine treatment to this outstanding film. The extras include an interview with Atom Egoyan from The Charlie Rose Show, an illustrated rendition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, an isolated track of the score, U.S. and Canadian theatrical trailers, and biographies and filmographies for cast members. There's an audio commentary tract featuring director Atom Egoyan and novelist Russell Banks. The same pair also provides a discussion of the book in relation to the film. Finally, there's a question and answer session with members of the cast.

This is a passionate film that reflects on some of the deepest themes from our shared existence as people in a fresh and original manner, just as did Browning's poem.

Did I say all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say,–
"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
"I can't forget that I'm bereft
"Of all the pleasant sights they see,
"Which the Piper also promised me.
"For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
"Joining the town and just at hand,
"Where waters gushed and fruit trees grew
"And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
"And everything was strange and new."

That promised joyous land, of course, is The Sweet Hereafter.

You might want to check out these other excellent films from Canada:

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
The Barbarian Invasions
Boys of St. Vincent
The Decline of the American Empire
The Fast Runner
Felicia's Journey
The Hanging Garden

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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