It’s the TIFF Issue, so we thought we would take a look at the work of a Festival regular: Atom Egoyan. Where better to start than with the film that marked a significant turning point in Egoyan’s career, The Sweet Hereafter .
While the film did not screen at TIFF the year it was released, it was recognized at Cannes winning the Grand Prize, the International Critics’ Prize and the Ecumenical Prize. It was further recognized at the Academy Awards, being nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay (losing out to Titanic and LA Confidential respectively), and was recognized here at home winning eight Genie awards including Best Motion Picture and Best Direction.
Jovana: I definitely liked this film, although not without caveats. I admired the complexity of the characters and plot, and the many of the performances were excellent. At times, the execution was a bit heavy-handed (as in the overwhelmingly dramatic score, and some of the more “flowery” dialogue), but then I decided to consider it simply an “authorial signature” (I guess Egoyan is known for melodrama).
Trista: I always find it interesting to watch a film with evaluating it in mind. Everything sort of takes on greater meaning, so I found myself examining pretty much every motion and beat. I hadn’t seen this film before we decided to discuss it, and I can say that the strength of the cast really surprised me. Considering how long I waited to see it, you’d think that I would know more about the cast, but beyond Sarah Polley, I didn’t really had no idea. I was shocked to see Bruce Greenwood, Tom McCamus and Maury Chaykin. All awesome.
Jovana: Agreed that Bruce Greenwood was/is incredible! Truly the heart and soul of the film. Getting to the emotional matters, even though I thought some of the dialogue/tears were excessive, I also thought the film really proudly represents and entices deep emotion. That’s a difficult thing to do, and Egoyan and the cast pull it off well. I might even dare to say that the film addresses nothing short of the notion of “happiness” itself (what is it and how can we know when we have it or lose it?).
Finally: it’s obviously about kids, our kids, and our relationship to our kids (okay ““ I don’t have any kids; but I know what family feels like, you know?) Are the kids well-developed characters? I would have liked to have seen more of the kids, as “real” people. They felt a bit flat to me, as characters. Too idealized into archetypes. Then again, this is also very Egoyan: the mythology, the Pied Piper, life as fable, etc.
Trista: It’s really interesting that you say that, since it didn’t occur to me that this film was about children until you mentioned it. I thought it was about how children get caught up in adult situations and are essentially pawns to our adult whims and expectations. As a result, I thought it didn’t really matter that the kids were under developed because, with the exception of Polley’s character (who is the only one old enough to have agency to do anything about her situation), they don’t really matter. It seemed that we were seeing the child characters the way a parent would see them, rather than how they actually are.
I found this a very interesting choice for a Canadian director, since the book is set in Upstate New York, while the film isn’t specifically set anywhere (as with many of Egoyan’s films, he just makes them where he wants to and doesn’t let the setting matter too much). My research on the novel seems to indicate that the very Canadian pastoral sensibility lends itself well to what seems to have been a very pastoral book. With that said, so many of our films are about the cold and small communities (since that’s a very Canadian experience), but it’s also an excellent example of this type of Canadian film, while not leaning too far in a pastoral direction.
Jovana: I was actually thinking that “remoteness”, as a theme and landscape, applies perhaps almost just as much to the States as it does to Canada (certainly they have more big cities than we do, but they also have vast amounts of unpopulated space and small, remote communities). In that sense, it’s a very “North American” setting; it’s a very “New World” kind of film: exploratory, innocent yet grizzled, enclosed. Far from European, whatever associations we might have with that cinema.
Is The Sweet Hereafter Essential Canadian Cinema?
Jovana: I would say yes, for two reasons: first of all, appreciating the distinct creative work of one of our domestic greats is always a pleasure, and second of all, the themes that surround living in a remote, cold landscape are probably familiar cultural territory for many Canadians. The film has a feeling of “home” in its settings and landscapes.
Trista: Yes, I think it is, actually, even though I didn’t expect to feel this way.) I think it’s an extremely well made and well executed film about towns that are not dissimilar to those that surround us, or that we grew up in. I think it’s an excellent specimen of great Canadian talent, displayed in a non-Canadian way. It’s also just a good story that will make you both feel and think.
The TFS Verdict: Grab your Kleenexes and prepare for a (wonderful) emotional ride. The Sweet Hereafter is definitely Essential Canadian Cinema.