- by Aileen Surash
The title of the film suggests it is a romantic tale filled with love, hope and dreams. Wrong. The Sweet Hereafter explores the tragic story of a horrifying school bus accident set in a small town in Canada. The film directed by Atom Egoyan examines the repercussions of the loss of innocent lives in a small knit community and how they cope with their tragedy. A lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) wants the mourning parents to sue for their loss. However the film looks at the personal lives of these characters, as it reveals what is beneath their smiling masks. Stevens has a drug addict of a daughter, the happy bus driver Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose) has a husband suffering from a stroke and the seemingly angelic Nicole (Sarah Polley) is in one of the most disturbing relationships witnessed in Canadian film. Scandalous affairs and how friends really perceive each other are revealed from the start, as the film looks at the differences between appearance and reality in a small town. The individuals all project a different image to society to what they really are at home. The film is littered with ambiguities as we wonder was Dolores speeding too fast? What are Mitchell’s true motives? Does he genuinely care for the well-being of the grieving parents or does he want to win the case for financial gain? These questions demonstrate that like the school bus that was on a dangerous path, the personal relationships in the town also ultimately lead to a crash. The film show how illusion of happy smiling families is slowly exposed so that their smiling lips are artificial, joyless “as frozen as a winter moon”.
The film is rich in literature using the Pied Piper of Hamlin as a backdrop to the story. The sudden voice over from Polley quoting from the fairytale adds to the mystery and gives an eerie chilling quality to the film, adding to the cold landscapes of the Canadian Mountains. The beautiful cinematography with the panoramic shots of icy Canada leaves the viewer feeling cold, a perfect setting to depict the bus accident. The vast landscapes ironically feels like an enclosed space by the mental imprisonment and the parents go through. They cannot escape their pain despite being surrounded by the never ending open spaces. The film not only tugs at the heart strings of parents but all people that lament for the loss of life. However this film is not for everyone, especially the light hearted. The story starts a little slowly at first, and there is constant drama and tension throughout especially with Polley’s scenes. Polley is a true drama artist, conquering and dominating the scene with her myriad of facial expressions; she is truly one of Canada’s talented actresses. This film show cases her talent as we watch how her character develops; there is no end to her dazzling performance. Egoyan has truly pieced together a film that leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth as he depicts sadness and loss in such a way the film almost becomes a documentary for showing the different reactions to tragedy. There is no surprise that the film was nominated for two Oscars. This film has a strong symbolic value with metaphors as the film is for those that appreciate the artistic value of how a story unfolds. High in drama, High in tension, this film will leave you feeling cold and emotionally haunted making you question your own personal lives. 4 Stars
Aileen is a first year American and English literature student at the University of Birmingham.