The Sweet Hereafter On DVD

Ian Holm, Maury Chaykin, Peter Donaldson, Bruce Greenwood, David Hemblin, Brooke Johnson, Arsinée Khanjian, Tom McCamus, Stephanie Morgenstern, Earl Pastko, Sarah Polley, Gabrielle Rose, Alberta Watson. Directed by Atom Egoyan. Aspect ratio: 2:35:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1. 116 minutes. 1998. New Line Platinum Series N4654. R. $24.99.

The Sweet Hereafter, based on the novel by Russell Banks, made many critics' Best of 1997 lists and won the '97 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix, yet many avid filmgoers have only the vaguest recollection of even hearing of it. Can it really be that good?

Absolutely. Hereafter is one of those rare films in which everything works: The screenplay is intelligent and rich, the acting is uniformly superb, the cinematography is sensitive to the needs of the story, and the story itself is hauntingly compelling.

Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) is a prominent accident attorney drawn to a small town when a schoolbus accident kills almost all of its school-aged children. He polls the area seeking to start a class-action suit and finds that the story, like all stories---even his own---changes from observer to observer.

Egoyan is a brilliant storyteller, but not a linear one---Hereafter leaps forward and backward in time as it plays itself out. Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"---another disturbing tale about a town that loses its children---serves as a connecting motif. This, by the way, doesn't come from Banks's novel; on the unusually rich commentary track, the author says that when he saw how Egoyan had employed Browning's verse tale, he wished he'd thought of it.

Every actor here is superb, but Holm stands out. His lawyer character is, of course, somewhat ghoulish in trying to convince the town's parents that a suit will fill the empty places in their lives. But Holm imbues his character with a respectful, hesitant demeanor---and, as it turns out, he has his own regrets, his own tragedy to deal with.

Based on this release, New Line's Platinum Series is DVD done right. The telecine transfer is impeccably crisp (they even credit it on the sleeve). The sound is first-rate as well. And we finally have someone offering us DVDs brimming with meaningful extras. In addition to the audio commentary on the film by Egoyan and Banks, we're also given a reading of Browning's "Pied Piper"---with Kate Greenaway's illustrations, no less---a discussion of the novel with Banks and Egoyan, Egoyan's appearance on The Charlie Rose Show discussing the film, interviews with cast members, an isolated version of the score by Mychael Danna, and the US and Canadian theatrical trailers. That's a lot of extras, but none of them feels superfluous.

If you buy only one "serious" film this year, make it this one---it's a keeper.