In one of the most profound and powerful assessments of bereavement, the journalist Catherine Deveney wrote that a person could only begin to heal when they accepted that they would never be fully better. It's a piece of wisdom that comes to mind watching Clint Eastwood's 'Hereafter', where three people struggle to come to terms with life and death.
Marie LeLay (de France) is a French TV news presenter who is covering a story in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami strikes. During the onslaught she is knocked unconscious and sinks below the surface, apparently dead. Her body is later pulled from the water by two locals who give up on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, only to see Marie cough her way back to life a minute later. After returning to Paris, Marie discovers that her success and career no longer hold much meaning, and that the only thing that matters is trying to make sense of what happened to her that day.
People say that what George Lonnegan (Damon) can do is a blessing. He, however, has decided it's a curse. After a life-threatening childhood illness, George has the ability to communicate with the dead and pass messages on from the other side by holding the hands of the living. While he set up a business as a psychic, it took its toll on him and now he works in a San Francisco factory, refusing to do any more readings and convinced that his power has robbed him of the chance of ever having an intimate relationship with anyone.
Marcus (the McLaren brothers) was living with his drug addict mother (Marshal) in a tough part of London until tragedy brought an end to their chaotic existence. Now living with a temporary foster family, Marcus is desperate to find answers to his questions about what happens to people when they die. He visits con artists and crackpots who do nothing to ease his pain and only leave him more bewildered by what has happened to him. A shy boy to begin with, Marcus becomes even more introverted as the weeks pass by, seemingly frozen at a certain point in time.
Your opinion of 'Hereafter' could largely depend on how strongly you believe in fate, or that there is another world beyond this one. With three storylines - one of them predominantly in French - and no larger than life characters, it's an unusual film for Eastwood - and arguably his most female-oriented since 'The Bridges of Madison County'. But, as with 'Gran Torino', 'Million Dollar Baby' and other films in his career, themes of loneliness, regret and making sense of living after someone is gone are prominent. Throughout there's the feeling of a film-maker who wants to address his own mortality as much as offer a memorable experience to his audience.
Written by Peter Morgan ('Frost/Nixon', 'The Queen'), 'Hereafter' unfolds slowly, and for a long period there is the puzzle of how the lives of Marie, George and Marcus will intersect - or if they will at all. However, thanks to the performances, the film is not tedious. In an unusual role, Damon excels as a man going through the motions and who has shut himself down emotionally. De France has real screen presence and it would be good to see more of her class in classy US films, while the McLarens are perfect as Marcus, always tugging at the heartstrings but never over-acting.
Without giving too much away, the finale here is rushed, and some will argue too convenient. But whether you see 'Hereafter' as heart-rending or hokum, it has one very important message that everyone should be able to agree on: Our time here is too precious not to make the most of.