"The Sweet Hereafter" Is More Poem Than MovieBy Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
A fter a tragic bus accident rips through a small Canadian town, a crusading lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm, from "Big Night" and "The Fifth Element") arrives to start a class-action suit to compensate the victims. This brief plot description is actually quite exhaustive - as far as the narrative line of "The Sweet Hereafter" is concerned. But what we have here is as far from the John Grisham adaptation du jour as possible. (Incidentally, it is also much better than anything of Grisham's oeuvre, not in the least because "The Sweet Hereafter" both eschews bombastic grandstanding, and takes its sweet time establishing many complex characters.)
This is a poem rather than a movie; four timelines (twice the number than in "The English Patient") weave their way through the fabric of this hypnotically dazzling picture. Don't you worry, though; the direction is highly lucid, and the movie is never confusing regarding events (it is with motivations, however). By fusing together remarkable cinematography of snow-bound landscapes with an ethereal score, the movie basically creates from scratch the world it operates in, a world both visually and aurally startling. In fact, I don't recall the music score playing such an important role in creating a film's universe since "Bladerunner," way back in 1982.
"The Sweet Hereafter" does not concern itself much with the plot (although there is an immaculately executed plot twist in the end-more on it below). It is more about the state of things, rather than any process, such as character development (we learn quite a lot about the cast, but none of them - with a sole notable exception - change at all), or even plot (four timelines means that each of them has limited time allotted to it). This, in a broad sense, is one of my two main problems with the movie. The cast is big and there are a lot of issues the movie is concerned with; but in its short running time (1:40), it shortchanges both the story developments and character studies.
On the other hand, looking for such things in this movie would probably be measuring it with the wrong yardstick; despite the fact that "The Sweet Hereafter" is based on the novel, I can't think of a more apt comparison than with poetry (there are rhythms aplenty in the visuals, narrative themes, and music). Notably, the metaphorical centerpiece is the poem "Pied Piper of Hammeln", which sums together everything that is gained and everything that is lost by the characters (although I have to confess that using the text of this poem twice in the movie is too much of a good thing, and the metaphorical importance is clear, but overstated).
"The Pied Piper", by the way, brings me to the second problem; same problem that I had with last year's "Breaking the Waves" - while the execution is highly commendable, I find myself strongly disagreeing with the main philosophical idea. Additionally, the abovementioned tardy plot twist (which is obviously supposed to bring a sense of closure) in my opinion defies understanding and catharsis.
But the buildup can not be faulted. This movie cannot be accused of is psychological simplifications; some of the relationships between people are so complex that they require careful thinking to get to their core. It's entirely thanks to director Atom Egoyan (who won Grand Prix last year in Cannes for this film) and the actors that make the impact of "The Sweet Hereafter" immediate. Ian Holm is remarkable as not-really-an-ambulance chaser; and, as the ultimately strongest character, young actress Sarah Polley is perhaps the most understatedly intense screen presence this side of Christina Ricci. The mention of Ricci is not random at all; if there's a recent movie "The Sweet Hereafter" reminded me of most, it's "The Ice Storm." Both movies share a main theme, namely the parents connections to their children, setting (bleak midwinter), and the amount of emotion (mostly heart-wrenching pity for the character) which is elicited without any visible pulling on the viewers' strings.