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The Boston Phoenix Tragic Bus

Atom Egoyan finds peace in "The Sweet Hereafter."

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  The sweet hereafter, Written and directed by Atom Egoyan based on the novel by Russell Banks. With Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Arsinée Khanjian, Alberta Watson, Maury Chaykin, and Brooke Johnson. A Fine Line Features release.

At least the victims and survivors of the Titanic had the consolation that their fate would become an emblem of 20th-century hubris. The bus plunge that devastates a small town in Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter is, like all disasters, seemingly without reason or meaning. How to transcend that void is the challenge faced by Hereafter's flawed and suffering characters. It's a challenge Egoyan triumphantly meets in his wrenching, nearly flawless film -- the best of his career and the best of the year.

Told in a fluid stream-of-collective-consciousness that skips with mounting gravity between points-of-view and from past to present to future, the film improves on Banks's original structure of four parallel first-person narrations. The point of view most central to the story, perhaps, is that of Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm, alternately churlish and heartbreaking), an ambulance-chasing claims lawyer who's come to the stricken Canadian town to put together a class-action suit against -- somebody. "There is no such thing as an accident," he announces confidently to one set of parents aggrieved by the crash that killed most of the town's children. "It's up to me to ensure moral responsibility for this thing." Most of the afflicted agree; a lawsuit will give expression to their grief and rage and will bring closure, and not a little cash.

But despite his demeanor, Stephens is less than secure in the moral-responsibility department. His interviews with potential clients are interrupted by inopportune cellular-phone calls from his daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks, the novelist's daughter), who's begging for money to support her drug habit. Braided around these intrusions are a flash-forward to a plane-flight conversation between Stephens and a friend of Zoe's. He tells an Abraham/Isaac-like story, recounted in flashbacks, of how his then infant daughter was bitten by a spider and he was prepared to give her an emergency tracheotomy. Stephens's past and future griefs embrace the communal catastrophe with fugal eloquence.

His investigation into the survivors' lives, however, brings more discord than resolution. Among the secret scandals touched on are an affair between Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), a widower left childless when his twins died in the bus, and Risa Walker (Alberta Watson), the mother of another victim. Unaware of the scandal in his own family, Risa's husband, Wendell (Maury Chaykin), eases his own pain by maligning his neighbors and fellow sufferers. Ansell proves Stephens's staunchest adversary, ostensibly because he sees him as bringing about the disintegration of his already beleaguered community. Perhaps, too, as the mechanic who was the last to inspect the bus, he feels a twinge of guilt.

Hovering over these sad and squalid affairs is the fate of Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley, evoking mystery and gentle power with her still radiance), one of the few surviving passengers. Paralyzed, she's a key witness to Stephens's case, and her doting father, Sam, is eager for her to cooperate. If called on to do so, she reminds him, she will tell all the truth -- the implication made clear in a discrete, recurring flashback to a haunting scene of candlelit transgression.

Nicole's witnessing to the truth, however, is not so much the recounting of details of the accident or the uncovering of secret sins. In a repeated scene that is one of Egoyan's most brilliant inventions, she's shown before the accident reading Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" to Billy's twins. As the film unfolds, the verses take on uncanny irony -- the enchanted ratcatcher, the perfidious citizens, the bewitched children never to be seen again, the lame child who escapes. Like The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter is in part, a reminder that responsibility, not meaninglessness, is the real horror of tragedy.

Neither Nicole nor Egoyan is so righteous as to leave it at that, however. What resounds most in the film is not blame, grief, or loss but beauty, terrible though it may be. Again and again Egoyan's camera takes up the route of the doomed bus from on high. The bus snakes around the snowblasted roadway until the unthinkable happens in a simple special-effects scene that equals all the fury of Titanic's climax in its awe-inspiring sublimity. What is left behind, in Nicole's case at least, is neither recrimination nor despair, but clarity, a hereafter that, sweet or not, must be reclaimed.

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