Wednesday, 27 January 2010

It's Hard To Pretend That I'm A Beautiful Rock Star.

I've always been fascinated by Atom Egoyan, purely because I really like his name. (Note for anyone who wants me to watch their films: if you have a cool name or you give your film a really cool name the chances are high that I'll tag along. Similarly for books: re A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius or Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Ditto music: I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too and Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.)

However, until the other day I'd never seen one of his films. Well, not one that he directed. I believe he EPd Away From Her. Yes, he did. So I sat down and watched probably his best-known and most acclaimed film, The Sweet Hereafter.

Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stevens, a compensation lawyer who heads to a small town hoping to represent the families of a bunch of children who died in a tragic bus accident, determined that he can find that someone, somewhere was negligent either within the town council or the bus manufacture, and bring the families some money and sense of justice - and net himself a significant windfall as well, no doubt. He is both inspired and plagued somewhat by his relationship with his own daughter, a drug addict recently revealed to be HIV positive who has been in and out of rehab and seems to be constantly on the phone to him asking for help. The parallels between losing his daughter to lifestyle and the families of this town that lost almost all of their children to a patch of ice on the road is his driving motivation. He can't punish anyone for what happened to his daughter, so he is intent on exacting his revenge on behalf of other people.

In the town he is met by some initial resistance. People don't really want to keep digging away at raw wounds - they would rather try and let them heal or at least cover them up, allowing them somehow to get on with their lives. He convinces a number of them to sign on, and once he has the initial pair others follow. The bus driver Dolores (Gabrielle Rose) has been seriously injured, and appears to have loved the children like her own, is devastated by what happened. She maintains that she merely hit that patch of ice, that it was a terrible tragedy, but is persuaded that maybe, somewhere, someone negotiated a cheaper bolt resulting in something giving way that shouldn't have.

Their whole case, however, rests on two people. One of them, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) wants absolutely nothing to do with it, even threatening to beat poor Mitchell when approached. The other, Nicole (Sarah Polley - who directed Away From Her, let's not forget) is a young girl now in a wheelchair, and whom Mitchell hopes will testify that Dolores was doing 50mph exactly as she always did, driving safely, allowing for the allegation that someone else it at fault. Nicole, however, has other plans. She's not all too happy about the whole thing being dragged up, she doesn't truly believe that anyone is to blame, and she lies in her deposition, crushing the hopes for the case, in part to exact revenge on another interested party.

The film is a quiet, simple drama with some very deftly achieved moments of tension and horror. Holm and Polley stand out for their performances, though the supporting cast is equally affecting with their displays of grief and momentary glimpses of hope. Running the parallel stories of people's memories of the accident, Mitchell's story with his daughter and the present day wrangling over the lawsuit keeps each story fresh and provides for a fresh look at each story when another has its climax. Everything becomes relative. And the story also parallels the Pied Piper of Hamelin, very literally and very directly, with the notion that all of the children are led out of town, never to be seen again, with only one (in this story, Nicole) left behind, crippled and alone.

The film works beautifully and effectively. It's touching, simple and soft, not in the weight of the meaning, but in the touch applied to that meaning's extraction. A wonderful adaptation by Egoyan from the book of the same name, the film netted him two Oscar nods for Director and Adapted Screenplay. 4 stars.

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