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The Sweet Hereafter movie review

The Sweet Hereafter

In The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan has tackled one of the most daring and hard to pull off methods of filmmaking, which most directors would crumble at the sight of.  His messy, but beautifully interlaced narration is utterly stunning to say the least.  Although not as sharply written as Wag the Dog or The Ice Storm, this is in no way a bad thing: Egoyan resists the temptation to tighten the screws and wrap the film up in a neat package.  It is, with all the odds stacked against it, a tragically extraordinary and utterly unforgettable piece.

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Devastation strikes a small town in British Colombia when a school bus crashes off the side of a road, killing twenty kids.  As can be expected, the town is awash with grief, and produces a mixed array or irate parents.  Each parent deals with their sorrow in a unique way; and when visiting attorney Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) begins to search for who to blame (and of course, who to sue) he becomes a welcomed intruder for many and a painful visitor for some.  Mitchell perhaps cares so much about this tragedy due to the loss of his own drug-addicted daughter, facing fear each time his cellular phone rings ("This is my daughter ringing, or it could be the police telling me that she's dead").

I haven't seen any other of Egoyan's films, but from what I've heard, the setup of The Sweet Hereafter is a not a change in style for him. Twisty, twirly, fast paced and pieced together like a puzzle that only looks right at the very end.  It's actually quite ingenious; a skilful way of handling tough material to cover, and a wonderfully visionary form of directing.

Although I thought that I had also seen no films featuring Ian Holm, looking at his profile, I've no doubt seen his face many times before (starring in, amongst many others, Alien and Chariots of Fire).  He gives an effulgent performance; adding multiple dimensions to his character - Mitchell is a comprised man who structures himself so that emotions can be conventionally pushed aside.  It is only when he meets one of his daughter's old friends that we get a glimpse of the heart inside this seemingly apathetic character. Without a doubt, he strikes me as one of the most intriguing on screen personalities so far this year (tying in top spot with Robert Duvall's The Apostle EF in The Apostle).

A bunch of memorable scenes help the film keep its stride, and maintain an engaging level of interest.  Strangely enough, they appear at the most unexpected times: a car wash is the stage for a striking introduction to Mitchell and his daughter, and a rendition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin becomes a necessary to the film's narration.

Charming and passionate but, at the same time, terrifying and tragic, The Sweet Hereafter is one of those unique cinematic gems that you just don't see all that often.  Stirring emotions is one thing, but manipulating and confusing them at the most unexpected times is another. A shattering but rewarding, complex but complete piece of irregular film making.  If this is an example of how a less sharp and pointed edged film is conceived, then bring 'em on.

Click here to buy films from one of the online stores in Festivale's on-line shopping mall From 0 stars (bomb), to 5 stars (a masterpiece): 4 and a half stars

Review © copyright Luke Buckmaster

Australian theatrical release: July 16
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