I’ve been a fan of Atom Egoyan’s movies for years, especially Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997).
The Sweet Hereafter is an adaptation of Russell Bank’s novel. The film uses the poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning as an allegorical device to make comparisons between the lives of the town’s children in the film — most of whom perish in a tragic school bus accident — and the children portrayed in the poem, led away by the Pied Piper after the town elders breaks their promise to the Piper about the payment for eliminating the town’s rat infestation.
The “Pied Piper” tells a tale in poetic form of the consequences of broken promises. In fact, the poem deals, not only with broken promises, but with corruption, anger and vengeance. Egoyan picked up on these themes when he used this poem, as read by the sole child survivor of that horrible accident, as a device to punctuate the story of the town’s loss of its children. Juxtaposing the film with the poem, apparently unrelated stories, and then allowing the audience to guess at just who the “Pied Piper” is in the film, is an innovative way to move the story along and adds a dark, fairy tale element to it.
In the film, the story of the Pied Piper is used to frame three characters: the personal injury/wrongful death attorney, Mitchell Stephens (played by Ian Holm), trying to lead the townspeople into filing liability lawsuits; Nicole Burnell (played by Sarah Polley), a 14-year-old who is paralyzed in the accident; and Nicole’s father, Sam (played by Tom McManus), who has committed incest with his daughter. Nicole reads the poem to two of the children that she baby-sits who die in the school bus accident. The main readings are in the beginning and in the last part of the film where you see Nicole, in a flashback before the accident, closing the book with the poem and walking down a hallway.
In the poem the lame boy laments not being able to follow his friends in Hamelin to the place the Piper has taken them to where “everything was strange and new.” In the film Nicole is a victim twice over: she is a paraplegic due to the accident and she is emotionally wrecked from the incestuous affair with her father. At this point in the film she represents the lame boy in the poem. Her friends have all gone to this “strange, new land,” the sweet hereafter, but she is left behind. Her anger, part of which is internalized, becomes evident when she gives false testimony at the deposition. She accuses Delores—the school bus driver who is truly anguished and distraught because of the accident—of speeding.
Nicole’s lie drives both Pied Pipers away: Mitch, who has promised the grief-stricken and vulnerable community that their losses will be avenged if they file the lawsuits, now has no case to pursue; and Sam, Nicole’s father, who enticed his daughter to have sexual intercourse thereby breaking one of the oldest of human taboos, will not be monetarily compensated for the damages inflicted on Nicole in the accident.
Nicole is transformed from the lame boy in the poem to the figure of vengeful Pied Piper who steals from the town, not children, but the opportunity of redress and, yes, revenge. Her anger at her father, like the Pied Piper’s anger at the Hamelin town government, lashes out and affects everyone in the story.
The Sweet Hereafter is a dark film. Dead school children and sexual abuse are real—sometimes they are too horrible and painful to face. Atom Egoyan has helped us face them head-on in his remarkable film.