The Sweet Hereafter is an unspeakably powerful film about a community trying to cope with the aftermath of a tragedy. In the small village of Sam Dent, B.C., the unfathomable has happened: a tragic accident has killed 14 children, touching almost everyone in the community.
Almost immediately, a big-city lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Holm), swoops into town. Amidst the ensuing atmosphere of suspicion, guilt and doubt, Stephens attempts to persuade residents to mount a class-action lawsuit against municipal authorities. What the townspeople don’t know is that Stephens lives with his own terrible tragedy; his daughter is gradually destroying herself with drugs. The community is soon divided — rife with anger, suspicion and recrimination.
Billy Ansell (Greenwood) stridently opposes the lawyer, actively trying to enlist other residents in his crusade. Nicole Burnell (Polley), a young girl who survived the disaster, silently grapples with the decision to provide evidence or not. Nicole is crucial to Stephens’ case, but she is haunted by a dark secret she shares with her father (McCamus). In the end, her choice leads to her own redemption and reunites the community.
Egoyan switches seamlessly from pre- to post-tragedy, recounting the events slowly, quietly and deliberately. Shot in widescreen against the austere snowy sweep of British Columbia’s mountain scenery, the anticipation of witnessing the accident becomes almost unbearable. In contrast to Egoyan’s earlier films, there is a stronger emphasis on the individual personalities of the characters. The performances are refined; the cast features some of the finest Canadian film actors, including Polley, McCamus and Greenwood. The veteran British actor Ian Holm received particular acclaim for his work, bringing forth the complex morality of Stephens.
A memorable look at the impact and meaning of tragedy, The Sweet Hereafter is a striking ode to the sometimes fragile sense of community binding us all in the struggle to hold onto our children.
The Sweet Hereafter marked a turning point in Egoyan’s career. More than any of his previous films, The Sweet Hereafter pleased both critics and audiences. It won of the Grand Prize, the International Critics' Prize and the Ecumenical Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and marked Egoyan’s largest commercial success to date. The Sweet Hereafter also received two Academy Award nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay. The film also won eight Genies including best motion picture and best direction. The Sweet Hereafter was also the first time Atom Egoyan used another writer’s material, adapting the acclaimed novel by Russell Banks.