The Sweet Hereafter Review

Sam Dent, a small town in British Columbia. A school bus, driven by Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) went off a road and plunged into an icy lake, killing fourteen of the children on board. One of the survivors is Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), wheelchair-bound as a result. Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a lawyer, arrives, hoping to mount a class-action suit against the bus company. However, not all is as it seems, and Mitchell has a few problems of his own.

The Sweet Hereafter was a turning point in Atom Egoyan's career. It was his first film not from an original screenplay, being an adaptation of a novel by Russell Banks. Often artists whose work is clearly rooted in personal preoccupations – as evidenced in the six earlier features which Artificial Eye have reissued and which I've reviewed for this site – sometimes have to take a break from them. The well runs dry and needs time to refill. For a filmmaker with at least one foot in the commercial industry, one solution is the present one, to take on a work originated by another that you find congenial. That was the road that Egoyan took, and he followed it with another adaptation, from William Trevor's novel Felicia's Journey, set and filmed in Birmingham and Ireland.

At the time, many people's view of Egoyan's work was that it tended towards the cold and cerebral, more of the head than the heart. Watching the earlier work for these reviews disproved that for me, particularly in regard to Speaking Parts (which I would rate as one of Egoyan's very best) and Exotica. However, the only thing cold about The Sweet Hereafter is the setting, a snowbound small Canadian town.

You don't need the several references to “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” to spot that children, their loss and parent/child relations (specifically, two father/daughter relations) figure significantly in this film. (I don't want to extend autobiographical speculation too far, but Egoyan had just become a father when this film was made: his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, who plays a supporting role here, was seven months pregnant when she filmed her scenes in Exotica.) We begin with a father/daughter scene, between Mitchell and his daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks), now a junkie calling him from a public payphone. You can see the hurt and pain and damaged love between them, something that Mitchell details later in a scene where he describes how they had to rush her to hospital after an allergic reaction to a spider bite, and his helplessness when she nearly died. Another problematic pairing is that of Nicole and her father Sam (Tom McCamus), one a little closer than it should be...and one where Egoyan leads us up the garden path to some extent.

There are links with Egoyan's work in the casting, with many of his regular actors appearing here. Ian Holm, cast as the stranger in town, fits in very well, and gives a very fine performance, often with subtle gestures. For example, see how much he conveys simply by closing his eyes when Zoe tells him some very bad news. The other standout in what is otherwise an ensemble piece is Sarah Polley, who was eighteen at the time and who had had a supporting role in Exotica. She gives a fiercely intelligent performance which enables the film to pull off an unexpected turn towards the end. This was a breakthrough performance for her, and she has continued as an actress and latterly a director since then. Her singing voice can also be heard on the soundtrack.

Behind the camera, the contributions of Egoyan regulars DP Paul Sarossy and composer Mychael Danna are very fine, the latter expanding on the use of unusual instrumentation (shawm, krumhorns, a Persian ney) that he used in Exotica.

Another link with Egoyan's earlier work is the use of an antichronological time structure. Mitchell's investigations in the town are interspersed with flashbacks to before, during and after the accident, and with flashforwards to a scene two years later where Mitchell meets his daughter's friend Allison (Stephanie Morgenstern) on a plane flight. This does need some attention at first to see how the various pieces fit together, but it soon becomes clear, which is a credit to Susan Shipton's editing.

Since this film, Egoyan has continued to work in a “one for them, one for me” pattern, alternating more mainstream films such as Where the Truth Lies and more personal material such as Ararat, which deals explicitly with Egoyan's Armenian heritage, along with short films (such has his contribution to 2000's Samuel Beckett project, Krapp's Last Tape) and television and stage work. His newest film, Devil's Knot, has just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival as I write this.


Artificial Eye have released The Sweet Hereafter on DVD and Blu-ray. It was the former which was supplied for review, a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. Affiliate links refer to the DVD, for those for the Blu-ray go here.

The Sweet Hereafter was shot in Scope, with anamorphic lenses, and the DVD transfer is widescreen-enhanced in the ratio of 2.40:1. This is a very good transfer, sharp and colourful when it needs to be, with strong colours (inevitably dominated by whites and greys in the many snowy exteriors) and solid blacks.

The film was the only one of the seven reissued by Artificial Eye to have been released in cinemas with a Dolby Digital sound mix, the source of the 5.1 track on this DVD. There is also a Dolby Surround (2.0) alternative. Both sound fine, Danna's music especially, with the 5.1 track mixed slightly louder. There are some uses of directional sound and the subwoofer fills in on occasion, such as the crash sequence halfway through, but this is mostly a dialogue-driven film. As you might expect, unfortunately, this English-language film has no hard-of-hearing subtitles available.

There is one extra, Egoyan's 1982 short film Open House (24:45), shot in 16mm and presented in 4:3, a quirky piece about an estate agent, Frank (Ross Fraser), who shows a young couple round an old house, but Frank is odder than he seems at first.

All the Atom Egoyan feature films reissued by Artificial Eye, as well as his 2008 film Adoration, (which is released on DVD by New Wave Films) are available on Curzon Home Cinema.

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