The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

“I didn’t know. I was in a panic. I guessed she’d been bitten by an insect, but there was no doctor. The nearest hospital was forty miles away, and Zoe was continuing to swell. Klara took her in her arms and tried to breast-feed her, while I dialed the hospital. I finally got a doctor on the line. He sounded young, but cool. He was confident, but there was a nervousness. He had been an intern. This was the first time he ever had to deal with anything like this. He wanted to seem like he knew what he was doing, but he was just as scared as I was.He surmised that there was a nest of baby black widow spiders in the mattress. He told me they had to be babies, or else with Zoe’s weight she’d be dead. He told me I had to rush her to the hospital. He was alone. There was no ambulance available. ‘Now you listen’, he said, ‘There’s a good chance you can get her to me before her throat closes, but the important thing is to keep her calm.’ He asked if there was one of us she was more relaxed with than the other. I said, ‘Yes, with me.’ Which was true enough, especially at that moment. Klara was wild-eyed with fear, and her fear was contagious. I was a better actor than she was, that’s all. Zoe loved us equally then. Just like she hates us both equally now. The doctor told me that I should hold her in my lap, and let Klara drive to the hospital. He asked me to bring a small, sharp knife. It had to be clean. There was no time to sterilize properly. He explained how to perform an emergency tracheotomy. How to cut into my daughter’s throat and windpipe without causing her to bleed to death. He told me there’d be a lot of blood. I said I didn’t think I could do it. ‘If her throat closes up and stops her breathing, you’ll have to, Mr. Stephens. You’ll have a minute and a half, two minutes maybe, and she’ll probably be you can keep her calm and relaxed, if you don’t let her little heart beat too fast and spread the poison around, then you might just make it over here first. You get going now’, and he hung up. It was an unforgettable drive. I was divided into two people. One part of me was Daddy, singing a lullaby to his little girl. The other part was a surgeon, ready to cut into her throat. I waited for the second that Zoe’s breath stopped to make that incision.”

‘The Sweet Hereafter’, directed by Atom Egoyan in 1997, is a Canadian drama based on a novel by Russell Banks. Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes to a town following a tragic bus accident. He visits the families of the victims and the driver of the bus trying to gather witnesses to launch a law suit against the bus company. He’s faced with opposition from town’s folk, and with his own domestic troubles as he is preoccupied by his drug addicted daughter.  It’s a chilly, stark film, one in which the simplicity of the visuals is belied by the complex way the plot unfolds. The film is an overlapping set of flashbacks and forwards, thematically developing themes of loss, revenge and justice. The standout performance of the movie is Holm, in one particular scene in which he’s recounting a story from his daughter’s childhood to one of her old friends, he is front and centre of the screen and fully in charge of the image. It’s a slow, meditative film that doesn’t spoonfeed the audience, more about the frailties of the characters (and there are many frailties) than about the plot. Throughout the film is a fairy-tale motif, that of the Pied Piper, which gives the whole thing a fantastical edge and drawing a keen division between the almost romantic nature of the town with the emotional trauma of Stephens and the grim reality of his daughter.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a beautifully shot character study that, whilst operating on a small scale, reveals much about big themes. Watch in a double bill with ‘The Barbarian Invasions’, another Canadian film that, whilst being more comic, has a similar tone and balance.

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