Renowned for his much-acclaimed, but extremely bizarre arthouse excursions (most notably Exotica), Egoyan ploughs slightly more commercial, audience-friendly ground with The Sweet Hereafter to give us a watchable and gripping film.
Yes, it may be arthouse, but it's not difficult to see why this piece bagged three major awards at Cannes -The Grand Prize, the International Critics' Prize and the Ecumenical Council Prize. Egoyan's screenplay, based on Russell Bank's book, is witheringly realistic and remarkably free of cheap sentiment, with no neatly tied-up Hollywood ending or blatant allusions to any good versus evil morality. Instead the director ensures that all the characters are 100% believable.
Take Holm's crusading lawyer: on the face of it he's a typical fat cat brief, out to squeeze cash from the misfortunes of others. But Egoyan delves deeper than that, showing us the reasoning behind his actions - we learn that his daughter died of drug abuse, and he is harnessing the ire of bereaved families to exorcise his own lingering sense of loss.
The film's real merit rests with Egoyan's minute attention to detail. When each actor speaks, he makes sure that their presence holds the screen; not one stolen glance or brief flicker of emotion is missed. Each detail contributes to the unfolding story and our understanding of the characters' complex relationships.
Sarah Polley shines as Nicole Burnell, and Khanjian (Egoyan's wife) provides a commendable turn as one of the grieving parents. But it's the great Ian Holm who really dominates the screen. So convincing is his balance of hard-edged exterior with raw, heart-felt emotion that he makes real life seem woefully two-dimensional.
It's a film that has enough raw passion to ensure your eyes are firmly fixed on the screen and make you realise that, so long as Hollywood continues to churn out big budget, daftly-plotted hokum, this is what cinema is all about.
Although solemn and slow, Egoyan's unique directing style will just about prevent you from sneaking to the exit. Worth watching for Holm's powerful and magnificent performance alone.
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