The Colors Of Mourning

ON A SNOWBOUND, WINTRY DAY outside the small town of Sam Dent, in British Columbia, the local school bus plunges off the side of a hill and sinks into a frozen lake. Fourteen of the town's children die. Among the few survivors are the bus driver, Dolores Driscoll, and the beautiful teenager, Nicole Burnell, who will be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. In the face of such a calamity, how does a community survive? How do the parents cope? Who do they turn to for solace--and where do they look for scapegoats? These are among the big questions raised by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's strong, harrowing The Sweet Hereafter, taken from Russell Banks's novel.

In the book, the tale was told by a handful of narrators. There was the well-liked Dolores (Gabrielle Rose). There was Nicole (Sarah Polley), who hid a dark family secret, and the Vietnam vet Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), a widower who lost his twin children in the accident. The fourth narrator, the big-city lawyer Mitchell Stephens, has become the focal point of Egoyan's remarkable adaptation, which recently won the Grand Prize at Cannes. Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives in the aftermath of the tragedy, promising financial recompense to the parents of the victims. ""Let me represent your anger,'' pleads the lawyer, a man who's convinced there's no such thing as an accident. Someone must pay.

Is this man a vulture, preying on the weak? It's not quite that simple. Stephens is driven by more than greed: he's haunted by the daughter he's lost to heroin, a loss he can deal with only through the surrogacy of this lawsuit. As Holm plays him, with buttoned-down rage, we see what a superb actor this lawyer must be, adapting his performance to suit the emotional needs of his clients in the class-action lawsuit. It's the only stage he's at home on: confronted with his own daughter, he turns to ice.

Obviously, a story so infused with grief could easily become mawkish, but Egoyan is no sentimentalist. As in his earlier, even more stylized films (""The Adjuster,'' ""Exotica''), Egoyan transforms the most extreme experiences into something almost ritualistic. There's a mesmerizing clarity to ""The Sweet Hereafter'': you're moved by it, but you never feel the filmmaker is milking your emotions. It's rare that a literary adaptation can at once be so faithful to its source and yet have a voice and tone so entirely its own.

Led by the superb Holm, the subtle Polley and the charismatic Greenwood, the largely Canadian ensemble here reveals to us the sins, wounds and secret strengths of a community rocked by a vicious fate. Amid the sorrow, there is the harsh beauty of survival.