The Sweet Hereafter (Review)

sweet_hereafter_ver3In any small and isolated rural community, the driver of the school bus is responsible for the entire town’s future twice a day, five days per week.

When you think about that it’s a hell of a responsibility.

So when said bus is involved in an incident en route to the local school in a small snowbound Canadian town, there are many people directly effected, beyond those actually riding in the vehicle.

The Sweet Hereafter draws together the stories of many such people impacted, brought together by unspeakable tragedy, as seen through the eyes of an opportunistic lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), a man ‘determined to apportion the blame’ to someone… anyone. For an industry standard percentage.

The more you see Stevens at work the more greasy and dirty you feel. He plays his intended ‘clients’ by uncovering what is relevant to them, grief, revenge, money, then tailoring his spiel to that desire, all in the appropriate tone. Stevens’ theory is that the more ‘victims’, direct and indirect, that unite as one to take on this injustice, the stronger the case and ergo, the higher the compensation.

“We owe it to the children to get the most we can, so that this never happens again.” Let that linger for a moment.

Some do. Stevens contacts the bus driver, the parents of the living and dead, and survivors, most notably Nicole (Sarah Polley) a girl in her early teens who will never walk again, but that hasn’t impacted her mental capacity or indeed affected a bullshit detector that proves her wise beyond her years.

As you might guess The Sweet Hereafter deals in especially heavy, entirely laughter free subject matter. It delves deep into some of the town’s frailties and sordid relationships, but never in a judgmental way. For his part while Stevens works the angles with ruthless efficiency, you can see the toll that it has on him, magnified because of familial issues of his own.

This is a film that seeks not to cast blame or take sides. Even with an ‘ambulance chasing’ lawyer on hand it never paints him as truly evil. The tone is of course dark but somehow hypnotic, as if you all the sorrow generated is gradually being borne by all. An entire town sharing the burden of grief.

Ian Holm cuts a polarizing figure, simultaneously abhorrent and sympathetic. Sarah Polley announces herself with a poised and reserved performance that shows natural instincts and smarts.

It is inevitable that with a film with such subject matter, joy will not be the outcome whichever way you cut it. And in truth I ordinarily steer well clear of things that I know in advance will depress me, but The Sweet Hereafter has a beauty and wistfulness peeking from beneath the sorrow. It doesn’t dilute the tragedy but it does reward the viewer in its own way.

Final Rating – 7.5 / 10. A compelling character study in the aftermath of a snowbound town’s worst nightmare.

About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
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