Picks and Pans Review: The Sweet Hereafter

updated 12/08/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ian Holm, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Polley, Alberta Watson, Gabrielle Rose

As the ice on the frozen lake cracks in this somber, extraordinarily fine film, so do the hearts of those living in a rural Canadian town. The lake has swallowed 14 of their children, drowning them when a school bus skids off a snowy mountain road and slides into the water.

The bus driver (Rose), who barely survives the accident herself, tells everyone she hit a patch of ice and slid. Nothing is that simple, maintains a lawyer (Holm, in a stellar performance), who comes to town hoping to convince the parents of the dead children to file a lawsuit. "There is no such thing as an accident," he tells them. "You need to do this for the protection of other innocent children." The parents see in the lawsuit a chance to focus their anger and grief and, possibly, land some big money. The lawyer is driven by his own failure as a parent; his daughter, now an adult, has been lost in a haze of drugs for the past 10 years.

Is anyone to blame, and will blaming anyone actually make going on any easier for the living? And who among us is without fault? Those are the questions at the heart of The Sweet Hereafter, a film of rare insight and wisdom. The director is Canadian Atom Egoyan (Exotica), who adapted his screenplay from a 1991 book by novelist Russell Banks. (R)

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