The Sweet Hereafter

Reviewed by Van T. Tran

Platinum Series DVD

New Line Cinema, widescreen 2.35:1, 16x9 enhanced, languages: English (DD 5.1), French (2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, dual-layer, scene selections-21 chapters, rated R, 112 min., $24.98, street date 5/26/98.


  • Audio commentary by Atom Egoyan & Russell Banks
  • Interview with the director from "The Charlie Rose Show"
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Q & A with selected cast members
  • "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Robert Browning original illustrated poem
  • Isolated music score
  • Theatrical trailers

Studio Line

Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, 1998.

Directed by Atom Egoyan. Starring Ian Holm, Maury Chaykin, Gabrielle Rose, Peter Donaldson, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Polley.

On a winter's day, in the small rural community of Sam Dent, British Columbia, a school bus inexplicably crashes into a frozen lake, taking the lives of fourteen children and injuring many others. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a big city lawyer, comes to the community with promises to compensate its citizens for their loss.

With a view to mounting a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the accident victims, Stephens interviews the survivors of the crash and the families who are mourning the deaths of their children. Through a series of emotionally charged meetings, we are presented with a prismatic view of the accident and its impact on the town. At the same time, through the interviews and a series of flashbacks, we discover disturbing secrets which reveal that, in some ways, the community was already on the road to losing its children.

With his assured presence and promises of retribution, Stephens earns the trust of the community and becomes the conduit for its anger and pain. Ironically, as Stephens builds his lawsuit, we discover that he too is a man in emotional turmoil, dealing with the virtual "loss" of his own daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks) to drugs. Ultimately, it becomes clear that by trying to help the town through its crisis, Stephens is trying to find a solution to his own. In so doing, the lawyer, like the townspeople, is looking for the answer to the question: "how do you cope and whom do you blame?"

Among the key figures are Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), the middle-aged school bus driver, who shares vivid memories of the children; Wanda and Hartley Otto (Arsinée Khanjian and Earl Pastko), parents to an adopted child lost in the accident; and Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), the widowed father of two children killed in the crash, and the secret lover of Risa Walker (Alberta Watson), the wife of Wendell Walker (Maury Chaykin), and the mother of another boy killed in the accident.

Finally, and most crucial to Stephens' case is the Burnell family: Sam and Mary (Tom McCamus and Brooke Johnson), and their teenage daughter Nicole (Sarah Polley), a beautiful young singer who survived the accident but will never walk again. As the prime witness, Nicole holds the key to the class-action suit, but as we learn more of her personal history and of the disturbing relationships within her own family, we see that there is mystery and more than one sorrow below the thin veneer of what appears to be a tightly-woven community.

As the community's secrets threaten to surface, Stephens finds his diligently woven case spiraling out of control. Finally, through an act of extraordinary bravery and moral clarity, Nicole puts a halt to the community's anguish, and her own.

Picture/Sound/Extras (A/B+/A-)

I am just awestruck by the beautiful transfer of this poignant film. Thinking that perhaps this Canadian produced film, like most independent films, would suffer in the picture department, but I couldn't be more wrong. The picture is absolutely gorgeous in presenting the breathtaking cinematography of snow covered landscape and wide open sky. The picture of the dual-layer compression is clean of artifact, except for one scene where aliasing is noticeable on the outside wall of the community center. Images are razor-sharp with merticulous details in the texture. Contrast and brightness are superb for a terrific visual depth. Black and shadow detail are well defined. Colors are naturally rendered from the pristine white snow to the brown texture of wood panels. The picture is framed at the theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 and is also 16x9 enhanced.

The encoded Dolby Digital soundtrack is a blessing. Foremost is the ethereal score composed by Mychael Danna and presented in an enchanting clarity and fidelity. In contrast to the modern day setting, the score has a medieval composition with a fable like quality that weaves the story into a timeless essence. Each note from the ensemble strings and flutes can be heard distinctively and projected to a wide soundstage for a rich atmosphere. The vocals from the songs performed by Sarah Polley are wonderfully soft and delicate, never a moment sounded harsh or muffled. Sound effects are expertly integrated for a very realistic environment. Unlike most action films that just pump out loud noise, bass extension is limited in the film, but when it does occur, such as during the crash scene, it is startling. Dialogue is natural throughout.

The included supplements are quite a gem. As an avid viewer of the Charlie Rose Show, I am extremely happy to find an interview segment with director Egoyan. The conversation provided a tremendous insight into Egoyan's works. A five minutes interview with Charlie Rose can reveal more about the guest than a full hour on any talk show that is currently on the air. Another thing I find very satisfying is the audio commentary given by Egoyan and book author Russell Banks. It is rare to have a collaboration between the screenwriter and the author of the novel discuss what worked best in the adaptation and what had to be changed. Other thoughtful supplements include an original illustrated poem of The Pied Piper of Hamlin which serves as a pivotal theme in the film, a featurette that includes reading by Banks, an isolated music track, and two trailers. A big bravo to New Line for consistently producing high quality and compelling DVDs.

Related Sites

Current as of 11/3/98

  • Official Site--An entire screenplay is available to download.
  • James Berardinelli's ReelViews--"Egoyan has given us a powerful motion picture that resonates on every level."
  • Salon Magazine--"The Sweet Hereafter finds an extraordinary, mysterious beauty in the ultimate loss."
  • Atom Egoyan: The Nucleus--"Your source on the web for information on the career of Atom Egoyan, the Canadian independent film director and writer."
  • The Sarah Polley Homepage--While virtually unknown in America, this actress and singer is hugely popular in Canada.
  • The Ian Holm Tribute--"Sir Ian Holm is popularly known as "Mr Ubiquitous" due to his diverse talents as a stage and screen actor."
  • review and purchase the novel by Russell Banks. Also available to purchase is the CD soundtrack.

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