The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter is an unwavering look at the human capacity for loss and endurance. Adapted from a novel by Russell Banks, the film follows the inhabitants of a small town as they weather the rippling aftershocks of a school bus crash that kills 14 children. As Roger Ebert wrote, The Sweet Hereafter is “not about the tragedy of dying, but about the grief of surviving”. 

 

 

As the parents are set reeling from their unthinkable loss, a lawyer named Mitchell Stephens comes to town. His aim is to persuade the grieving families to file a lawsuit against the bus company – to direct their fury and suffering towards a tangible, mercenary target. As he builds his case, personal crises and fraught relationships begin to unravel under the pressure. The town’s collective trauma becomes layered with the secrets and strains of the past. 

Played with expert subtlety by Ian Holm, Stephens is no straightforward hack. He too is a bereaved parent, mourning the loss of a daughter who is still living but slipping away further with every phone call.

 

 

Banks’ novel was based on a real-life accident – in 1989, a truck crashed into a school bus in Alton, Texas, killing 21 children. In the immediate aftermath, lawyers flocked to the town to convince the freshly-bereaved families to take the bus manufacturer to court. To many at the time, their eagerness seemed callous – some reports described parents being approached while they were still in the morgue, mourning their children.

In the book, Banks transposed the events from Texas to New York; for the film, director Atom Egoyan relocated the narrative again to a remote town in Canada. Blanketed by snow and sorrow, the landscape provides a powerful setting for a “humane, insightful and extremely moving” drama (as described by William Thomas in Empire).

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