The very talented Canadian director Atom Egoyan won three major prizes at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for The Sweet Hereafter, his most ambitious and accessible work to date. Egoyan, who is the subject of an IFC retrospective in this programme (see page //), is one of the key figures to emerge on the international film scene over the past decade, and the Cannes recognition was well deserved.
Based on a best-selling novel by Russell Banks, this beautifully crafted movie tells of a small community struck by tragedy following a road accident in which a school bus plunged into an icy lake, killing many of the local children. An opportunistic big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) with demons of his own (he’s estranged from his drug-addict daughter) tries to persuade the relatives of the victims to sue for compensation by feeding off their anger and inability to come to terms with grief and loss. In the ensuing atmosphere of suspicion and doubt, a courageous teenager decides to tell the truth about the accident and manages to re-unite the community.
As one might expect, Egoyan doesn’t turn this powerful material into a simplistic melodrama. Instead the film develops into a complex yet very affecting parable about how a community manages to transcend its anger and share a sense of peace and understanding with its loved ones who now live in ‘the sweet hereafter’.
Following the success of Exotica, the new film marks another step closer to the commercial mainstream for Egoyan, who nevertheless remains faithful to his core concerns with issues of identity, family and communication. This is the first time Egoyan has interpreted someone else’s work, and he has succeeded in making a faithful adaptation that also fits snugly into his own oeuvre. Unlike the novel, which is divided into four chapters (each narrated by a different character), Egoyan’s film unfolds in a complex web of scenes, moving fluidly back and forth though time, before and after the tragic school bus accident. His masterstroke is the introduction of Browning’s poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ as a key reference, which gives the story the qualities of a myth.
Beautifully performed by Ian Holm and a group of Egoyan regulars (with Sarah Polley from Exotica outstanding as the teenager determined to face the truth), stunningly photographed in wide-screen on snowy locations and in dark interiors, and boasting another of Egoyan’s very effective sound scores, The Sweet Hereafter is a magnificent achievement and one of the best films we’re likely to see this year.