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the sweet hereafter could serve as a textbook example of the difference between television movies and " real " movies .
consider for a moment what a television producer would do with a book that features a fatal school bus accident and a lawyer out to sign up the bereaved -- lots of hot sensationalism interrupted with breaks to sell beer and toothpaste .
top-flight writer and director atom egoyan delivers instead a film with tremendous power whose most notable trait is its touching subtlety .
based on a respected book of the same name by author russell banks , the movie represents a rethinking of the story's structure , not merely a literal adaptation of the novel .
told in linear form by four narrators in the book , egoyan's version happens instead in overlapping time sequences and without a narrator .
the author is even on record as applauding egoyan's changes .
in the press notes the book's author describes the story as " a parable of lost children . "
he says it asks what a town does in the absence of its children .
picking up on this , egoyan has a flashback in which a sitter , nicole burnell , played with grace by sarah polley , reads parts of " the pied piper " from an old , illustrated book to her two charges .
periodically throughout the picture , nicole's readings are heard in voice-over .
you have never heard this moving poem read so sweetly or in such an appropriate moment .
they and the rest of the town's children come into harm's way -- some live and others are seriously injured .
and the entire small canadian town where the accident occurs is never the same again .
although the physical damage is inflicted mainly on the children , the adults bear the emotional scars of the loss .
ian holm , in arguably the best performance of his distinguished career , plays mitchell stephens , an intense man of quiet misery .
mitchell is the outsider in the story set in a small , snow-encrusted community in the british columbian wilderness .
his mission there is a singular one , to sign up the parents so that he can sue someone , anyone , on their behalf .
if this seems crass , well it is , but mitchell approaches his job with the dedication of a religious zealot .
the story unfolds slowly and always believably .
each little aspect has its own fascination .
as mitchell interviews wendell and rita walker , played with quiet realism by maury chaykin and alberta watson , he has a simple task .
he wants them to suggest some model couple in the village who has a lost a child so that he can use that couple to form the basis of the suit .
wendell ticks off one town member after another and then , as one can in a small town , enumerates each person's numerous faults .
although the town is no peyton place , people there do have their foibles .
one of the best parents in the town appears to be billy ansell ( bruce greenwood ) , who rides his pickup behind the school bus everyday just so he can wave good-bye to his kids .
well , single parent billy's fault is that he has regularly scheduled trysts with the married rita .
his confessions to rita about his feelings of loss are one of the many heartfelt outpourings in the story .
the accident itself , a simple one of a bus hitting a patch of ice , isn't shown until the middle of the picture , but , nevertheless , the mystery about it builds throughout the film .
although the picture is no detective story , finding out exactly what happened is a subtheme in a movie that is primarily a character study of a town gripped by tragedy .
as the injured bus driver , gabrielle rose , dolores driscoll plays the role of a dedicated individual who loves kids with a passion and for whom the tragedy takes on special meaning .
to round out the story , mitchell has his own private tragedy to bear .
his daughter zoe ( caerthan banks ) is a drug addict who has bounced in and out of one half-way house and recovery center after another .
fond of calling her dad on his cell phone so she can ask for money or help , she interrupts him at many emotionally charged moments as he attempts to sign up the townsfolk .
( " i can help you , " mitchell tries to reassure billy .
" not unless you can raise the dead , " billy snaps back .
mitchell's pitch is never an easy one and worrying about zoe only makes it harder . )
mychael danna's haunting music sets the stage for tragedy .
the cinematography by paul sarossy is sweeping in its outdoor grandeur , but it is in the warm , shadowy , intimate moments indoors where it works best .
the show , which is ripe for emotional manipulation , never plays with its audience .
still , when the house lights go up , you may feel as i did .
i could barely breathe ; i was so overcome by the sum total of what i had witnessed .
more than anything , the film is like a master painting .
each cinematic brush stroke is carefully laid down by egoyan with the beauty building with each dollop of paint .
with the final color in place , the masterpiece is complete , and the ending credits roll .
the sweet hereafter runs 1 : 50 .
it is rated r for mature themes , sexuality and some profanity and would be fine teenagers .
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