The Sweet Hereafter (film)

The Sweet Hereafter

North American theatrical release poster
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Produced by
Screenplay by Atom Egoyan
Based on The Sweet Hereafter
by Russell Banks
Music by Mychael Danna
Cinematography Paul Sarossy
Edited by Susan Shipton
Ego Film Arts
Distributed by Alliance Communications (Canada)
Fine Line Features (United States)
Release dates
  • 14 May 1997 (1997-05-14) (Cannes)
  • 10 October 1997 (1997-10-10) (Canada)
Running time
112 minutes[1]
Country Canada
Language English
Budget $5 million[2]
Box office $3.3 million[3]

The Sweet Hereafter is a 1997 Canadian drama film written and directed by Atom Egoyan, starring Ian Holm, Sarah Polley and Bruce Greenwood and adapted from the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The film tells the story of a school bus accident in a small town that results in the deaths of numerous children. A class-action lawsuit ensues, proving divisive in the community and becoming tied in with personal and family issues. The story is inspired by actual events in Alton, Texas in 1989.

Although The Sweet Hereafter was not a box office success, it was critically acclaimed and won three awards, including the Grand Prix, at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. It also received two Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Toronto International Film Festival critics named The Sweet Hereafter one of the ten best Canadian films of all time.


In a small town in British Columbia, a school bus hits a patch of ice, runs through a barrier and crashes into a lake, killing 14 children. The grieving parents are approached by an out-of-town lawyer, Mitchell Stephens, who is haunted by his dysfunctional relationship with his drug-addict daughter. Stephens persuades the reluctant parents and bus driver Dolores Driscoll to file a class action lawsuit against the town and bus company for damages, arguing that the accident is a result of negligence in constructing the barrier or the bus.

The case depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right things in court, particularly Nicole Burnell, a 15-year-old now paralyzed from the waist down. Before the accident, Nicole was an aspiring songwriter and was being sexually abused by her father, Sam.

One bereaved parent, Billy Ansel, distrusts Stephens and pressures Sam to drop the case; Nicole overhears their argument. In the pretrial deposition, Nicole unexpectedly accuses the bus driver Dolores of speeding, halting the lawsuit given Dolores' lack of deep pockets. Stephens and Nicole's father know she is lying but can do nothing. Two years later, Stephens sees Driscoll working as a bus driver in a city.




Canadian director Atom Egoyan adapted the screenplay after his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, suggested he read Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter.[4] The novel is inspired by an incident in Alton, Texas in 1989, in which a bus crash killed 21 students, leading to multiple lawsuits.[5] Egoyan found it initially challenging to acquire the rights, as they had been optioned to another studio that was not actually producing it. Shortly before the option expired, novelist Margaret Atwood suggested to Egoyan that he meet with Banks personally after the director's success with the film Exotica (1994),[6] and Banks was willing to grant him the rights. Egoyan later stated he was drawn to filming the novel because he felt film is for "confronting the most extreme things."[7] As an Armenian Canadian, he also saw the story as a metaphor for the Armenian Genocide, in which those guilty had not accepted responsibility.[8]

In adapting the novel, Egoyan changed the setting from Upstate New York to British Columbia, to help secure Canadian funding.[9] He also added references to the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, to emphasize how Egoyan saw the The Sweet Hereafter as a "grim fairy tale."[10] Nicole is seen reading The Pied Piper to children who later die in the accident.[11] In that story, the Pied Piper leads all the children away, never to return, after their parents refuse to honour their debt to him. Egoyan wrote a new stanza in the Pied Piper style for the scene in which Nicole testifies Dolores was speeding, in which she describes her father's lips as "frozen as the winter moon."[12] Egoyan also made Mitchell Stephens the main character and increased the importance of Stephens' daughter, and moved the reveal of incest to later in the film.[10]


The film was shot in British Columbia and Ontario,[13] on a budget of $5 million.[2] Funding came from the company Alliance Communications.[4] Egoyan assembled many Canadian actors he had worked with in prior films, including Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose and Sarah Polley.[14] Egoyan explained the benefit of working with a familiar cast, saying "When you’re working on a limited production schedule, it’s a comfort to know that you know the personalities involved, you know what they need as opposed to having to discover that and be surprised by that."[6]

Ian Holm was cast as Mitchell Stephens after the actor originally set to play the character, Donald Sutherland, quit the project.[15] In casting the part, Egoyan was inspired by Holm's "strangely compassionate, yet furtive and menacing" performance in The Homecoming (1973).[4] Holm explained why he accepted the role, saying, "It's not often you get offered a leading role at age 65... This is my first in a movie," and afterwards said the film is "very touching" and "a masterpiece."[16] Holm called his part challenging, as it was his first lead, but he found Egoyan and the Canadian actors to be great to work with.[17]


Mychael Danna, left, arranged popular Canadian songs which actress Sarah Polley performed, and the two worked together to create original songs.

The Pied Piper references influenced composer Mychael Danna's music, which uses a Persian ney flute along with old instruments such as recorders, crumhorns and lutes,[18] creating "a pseudo-medieval score."[19] The score thus combined Danna's interests in old and exotic music.[20] Egoyan stated medieval-style music was used to make the film feel timeless, evoking Brothers Grimm fairy tales and avoiding the feel of a TV movie.[21]

Polley's character, Nicole, is an aspiring singer before the accident, and is seen on stage performing the Tragically Hip's "Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)" and Jane Siberry's "One More Colour". Danna and Polley cooperated to create Nicole's music, with Polley writing lyrics to Danna's original songs and with Danna arranging the adaptations of "Courage" and "One More Colour." The songs were chosen because of their domestic popularity, reinforcing the local nature of Nicole's music.[22] The Tragically Hip's original version of "Courage" also appears in the film.[23]


The film debuted in the Cannes Film Festival in May 1997, and went on to play in the Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, New York Film Festival and Valladolid International Film Festival.[24] In Canada, the film was distributed by Alliance Communications.[25] Following its screening at Cannes, Fine Line Features adopted the film for distribution in the United States in November 1997.[6]

In Region 1, The Sweet Hereafter was released on DVD in May 1998.[26] In Canada, the film had a Blu-ray release in June 2012, with special features including interviews.[27]


Box office

By the spring of 1998, The Sweet Hereafter had grossed $1 million domestically.[25] According to The Numbers, The Sweet Hereafter finished its run after grossing $4,306,697 domestically and $3,644,550 in other territories, for a worldwide total of $7,951,247.[28] Although Canadian historian George Melnyk claimed the film achieved "mainstream popularity,"[29] Canadian historian Reginald C. Stuart said that the film "aimed for, but did not reach, a mass audience."[30] Dan Webster of The Spokesman-Review concluded that "despite generally good reviews" the film "never attracted much box-office attention."[31]

The Writers Guild of Canada commented that The Sweet Hereafter and contemporary Canadian films "never succeeded in scoring a home run at the international box office."[32] Melnyk suggested Egoyan's previous film Exotica performed better at the box office than The Sweet Hereafter because of Exotica's "sexual content... rather than the early film's artistic merit."[29]

Critical reception

Ian Holm received critical praise for his performance in the film and won the Genie Award for Best Actor.

The film holds a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8.9/10 based on 55 reviews, and a 100% rating based on 15 "Top Critic" reviews.[33] In 2002, readers of Playback voted it the greatest Canadian film ever made.[34] In 2004, the Toronto International Film Festival ranked it third in the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time, tied with Goin' Down the Road,[35] and in 2015, it was the sole film in the third spot.[36]

Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling it "one of the best films of the year, an unflinching lament for the human condition."[37] Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times, said "this fusion of Mr. Banks's and Mr. Egoyan's sensibilities stands as a particularly inspired mix" and that Sarah Polley and Bruce Greenwood are "particularly good here."[38] Brendan Kelly of Variety praised The Sweet Hereafter as "Egoyan's most ambitious work to date," and "a rich, complex meditation on the impact of a terrible tragedy on a small town," adding Polley and Tom McCamus are "excellent."[39] Entertainment Weekly gave the film an A, saying it "puts you in a rapturous emotional daze" and calling it "hymn to the agony of loss" and "a new kind of mystical fairy tale, one that seeks to uncover the forces holding the world together, even as they tear it apart."[40] Paul Tatara of CNN called The Sweet Hereafter "devastating" and said Ian Holm gives "the performance of his hugely impressive career."[41] David Denby of New York mazine said that the film had "Ian Holm's greatest role in the movies,"[42] and that the cast are "all excellent."[43] The film made over 250 critics' Top 10 lists for the best films of 1997.[24]

In 2004, Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek called The Sweet Hereafter "arguably the film about the impact of trauma on a community."[44] That year, The New York Times also included the film on its list of "the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made".[45] In 2011, British director Clio Barnard praised the "real depth" and "healthy ambiguity" of the story and said Holm and Polley as "brilliant", giving "powerful, subtle performances."[46] One year later, The A.V. Club named The Sweet Hereafter the 22nd best film of the 1990s, praising it as a "masterpiece of adaptation."[47]


The Sweet Hereafter won three awards at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival: the FIPRESCI Prize, the Grand Prize of the Jury, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.[48] This was the highest honour won at Cannes for a Canadian film and made Egoyan the first Canadian to win the Grand Prix, followed by Xavier Dolan in 2016.[49][50]

The Sweet Hereafter also won Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Actor for Holm, and three other prizes at the 18th Genie Awards. It was nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 70th Academy Awards, but lost to Titanic and L.A. Confidential, respectively.[51]

Award Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards Best Director Atom Egoyan Nominated [51]
Best Adapted Screenplay Atom Egoyan from The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks Nominated
Atlantic Film Festival Best Canadian Film or Video Over 60 Minutes The Sweet Hereafter, shared with The Hanging Garden Won [52]
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actress Sarah Polley Won [53]
Canadian Society of Cinematographers Awards Best Cinematography in Theatrical Feature Paul Sarossy Won [54]
Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize of the Jury The Sweet Hereafter by Atom Egoyan Won [48]
FIPRESCI Prize The Sweet Hereafter by Atom Egoyan Won
Prize of the Ecumenical Jury The Sweet Hereafter by Atom Egoyan Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Picture The Sweet Hereafter Nominated [55]
Best Director Atom Egoyan Nominated
Best Screenplay Atom Egoyan Nominated
Best Original Score Mychael Danna Nominated
Best Actor Ian Holm Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Sarah Polley Nominated
Most Promising Actress Sarah Polley Nominated
Genie Awards Best Motion Picture Atom Egoyan and Camelia Frieberg Won [52]
Best Direction Atom Egoyan Won
Best Actor Ian Holm Won
Best Actress Sarah Polley Nominated
Best Actress Gabrielle Rose Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Tom McCamus Nominated
Best Screenplay Atom Egoyan Nominated
Best Art Direction Phillip Barker and Patricia Cuccia Nominated
Best Cinematography Paul Sarossy Won
Best Costume Design Beth Pasternak Nominated
Best Editing Susan Shipton Nominated
Best Sound Daniel Pellerin, Keith Elliott, Peter Kelly and Ross Redfern Won
Best Sound Editing Steve Munro, Sue Conley, Goro Koyama, Andy Malcolm and David Drainie Taylor Won
Best Original Score Mychael Danna Won
Best Original Song Mychael Danna and Sarah Polley for "The Sweet Hereafter" Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards Best Foreign Film The Sweet Hereafter Won [56]
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Picture The Sweet Hereafter Runner-up [57]
Best Director Atom Egoyan Runner-up
Best Cinematography Paul Sarossy Runner-up
National Board of Review Best Acting by an Ensemble The Sweet Hereafter Won [52]
Top Ten Films The Sweet Hereafter Won
New York Film Critics Circle Best Film The Sweet Hereafter Runner-up [58]
Best Director Atom Egoyan Runner-up
Best Actor Ian Holm Runner-up
Society of Texas Film Critics Best Film The Sweet Hereafter Won [59]
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards Best Film The Sweet Hereafter Won [60]
Best Director Atom Egoyan Won
Best Canadian Film The Sweet Hereafter Won
Best Actor Ian Holm Won
Best Actress Sarah Polley Runner-up
Toronto International Film Festival Best Canadian Feature Film The Sweet Hereafter, shared with The Hanging Garden Won [52]
Writers Guild of Canada WGC Award Atom Egoyan Won [52]


  1. "THE SWEET HEREAFTER (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 18 June 1997. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  2. 1 2 Kaufman, Anthony (21 November 1997). "An Interview with Atom Egoyan, Director of 'The Sweet Hereafter,' Part I". IndieWire. Retrieved 3 August 2016.
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  7. Emma Wilson, Atom Egoyan, University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 89.
  8. David Hutchison, "Atom Egoyan: The Sweet Hereafter," Where are the Voices Coming From?: Canadian Culture and the Legacies of History, Rodopi, 2004, p. 146.
  9. Bert Cardullo, In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004, p. 41.
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  11. Cardullo, p. 45.
  12. Wilson, p. 101.
  13. Peter Harry Rist, ed., Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada, Greenwood Press, 2001, p. 218.
  14. Cardullo, p. 50.
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  19. Mera, p. 36.
  20. Mera, p. 38.
  21. Jason Wood, Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview, Wallflower Press, 2006, p. 59.
  22. Mera, p. 41.
  23. Mera, p. 42.
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  31. Dan Webster, "'Sweet Hereafter' studies town coping with deaths of children," The Spokesman-Review, 29 May 1998, p. 3.
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  43. Deby, p. 70.
  44. Rob Bullard, "Trauma and the Technological Accident in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter," Dramatising Disaster: Character, Event, Representation, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p. 26.
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  50. Humphreys,, David (2014-05-26). "Atom Egoyan On 1997 Cannes Victory: 'I Still Think It Was A Fluke'". Retrieved 2016-06-26.
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  59. "Texas Critics Honor 'The Sweet Hereafter' as Best Picture". IndieWire. 5 January 1998. Retrieved 3 August 2016.
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