Ian Holm did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite receiving some critical citations, for portraying Mitchell Stevens in The Sweet Hereafter.
Ian Holm plays the opportunist lawyer who tries to get the town residents to utilize the tragedy to get money from the bus company that made the school bus. Holm plays Mitchell Stevens is technically a bit of an outsider, and if it were not for the flash forward scenes Holm would really just be a supporting character as the film focuses heavily on the reactions of the other people in the town as well. Holm almost plays two characters in the film as it cross cuts with Stevens while he is trying to get the people to hire him, and later as we meet him on far more personal terms. In the scenes that are set in the past Holm, who did so particularly well in Alien, is once again great at portraying a type of acting within in character. In the case of Mitchell Stevens he's not portraying an android pretending to be a man, but he still is playing a man who is pretending.
Almost all of the scenes set in the past show Mitchell as he attempts to sway the families of the victim into letting him represent them, this task is easier with some more than others. One of the early families is more than happy not only to hire him, but also dispense various information about the other families that might hurt the case. Holm's pretty straight forward in these scenes just showing Mitchell as an intelligent enough lawyer going through the steps as he is building his case. Things are not so straight forward though when he confronts some of the people who would rather forget the accident rather bring it all very much to the light again while going through a long court battle. Holm is terrific in these scenes as he portrays Mitchell putting on an act, the act of a true crusader rather basically just an ambulance chaser trying to make a quick buck off of people's tragic loss.
Holm is brilliant as Mitchelle tries to convince two of the parents that someone must be sued for the mechanical error. Holm delivers the speech with such a passion as Mitchell says that suing the bus company is almost a moral duty to supposedly prevent something like that from ever happening again. Holm is great because he is completely believable in bringing such an emotional power to what Mitchell is saying and you could easily see how the very emotionally vulnerable people of the town would be swayed by Mitchell's plead. Holm though is so great by showing the act within the emotional power though. There is a performance that Holm shows not in his own actual performance, but rather the performance that Mitchell is giving in his impassioned speech. It's an extremely tricky yet very effective dynamic that Holm manages to achieve.
Mitchell is far from a soulless individual Although Mitchell's daughter is still alive it is almost as if Mitchell has lost her as she is a never recovering drug addict. During the film he receives a few calls from her and Holm shows the history between the two as he portrays Mitchell as almost responding monotonously to his daughter. Holm suggests as if she has called him in such a way so many times that he can barely bother to with an emotion. There was emotion once though as shown when Mitchell confides to an acquaintance about a time when his daughter almost died when she was young. Holm is absolutely heartbreaking as the love and loss in his voice when he speaks about the time he saved her life does not have a hint of falseness. The power of the scene is only amplified by the fake passion in the early scene and it is truly moving to see the "actor" from before only speaking the absolute truth.
Holm's work is, I suppose, technically slightly limited by his screen time, and the fact that he's lead in what still feels like an ensemble film. That never seems like it diminishes his impact on the film as a whole as whenever Holm is given the chance in the material Holm utilizes it fully. Although I would not have minded if the film had given even more to do with the character since with what he is given he creates such an interesting complex character. It's a unique piece of work as he effortlessly and very believable realizes this lawyer as a both the lying lawyer but also a man who has some very real problems of his own. It is often the case that in a "director's film" the performances can be overshadowed by the vision, and that is sometimes the case, but Holm knows how leave his mark while never trying to make a spectacle out of himself. Holm's performance, is much like the film, rather unassuming in many ways yet carries such an palatable poignancy all the same.