When I was in college, there was a terrific independent movie
released called HEARTLAND which was about a housekeeper in the
early part of the 20th Century who enters into an arranged marriage
with a local rancher. It was a movie that was made outside the film
industry -- a true independent production. While watching Ali Selim's
directorial debut SWEET LAND, about a mail-order bride in 1920, I
was reminded of that earlier movie. Both films were created outside
the system, both dealt with a similar time frame and theme, and
both were very good films. (Although I think that HEARTLAND is
the superior one.)
One of the particular problems I had with SWEET LAND was
its unwieldy structure. Selim's screenplay is adapted from a short
story called "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" by Will Weaver. As
the film unfolds, it is a flashback within a flashback. We open in
present day as a man has to decide whether or not to sell acres
of prime farmland to a developer. The farm had belonged to
his grandparents and the film then moves back in time to a funeral
-- that of the man's grandfather. The grandmother -- Inge (Lois
Smith) -- finds a photograph of herself as a young woman and
she then recounts what makes up the heart of the film, her story
as a foreign bride.
In 1920, Inge Altenberg (Elizabeth Reaser) arrives in Minnesota
with the intention of marrying a farmer, Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee).
Almost immediately, trouble ensues. Inge originally mistakens
Olaf's pal Frandsen (Alan Cumming) as her intended and reacts
to his joie de vivre. She is disappointed to learn that the surly,
quiet man with Frandsen is actually Olaf. Things get worse when
they arrive at the church for the wedding and the minister refuses
to marry the couple, mostly because Inge is not Norwegian but
German. Since this is just after the end of World War I, anti-German
sentiment is running high; indeed, there are some who fear that
Inge might even be a spy. The local judge also refuse to perform
a marriage ceremony because Inge doesn't have the proper papers.
Alone in a strange land, Inge first bunks with Frandsen and
his fecund wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) and their large brood.
She makes attempts to adapt to this new world and tries to learn
English. But it is crowded at Frandsen's home and she eventually
makes her way to Olaf's farmhouse. The couple live chastely -- he
sleeps in the barn while allowing her to stay in the house and
slowly, almost imperceptibly, they begin to fall in love. Since we
already know they will end up together, there is no real tension
to the story.
Reaser, who is a prettier version of Julia Roberts -- and one
with a great deal more talent -- holds her own as Inge. She
delivers a delicate and sweet performance. Guinee who has been
touted as the next big thing for years matches her performance.
Since he has had stage experience in the plays of his father-in-law
Horton Foote -- and this film resembles some of that playwright's
work -- he inhabits his role as the inarticulate but caring farmer
well. Cumming is surprisingly good in a fairly conventional role
as is Kingston as his more practical and pragmatic wife. There's
also nice supporting work from veterans like John Heard as the
town minister and Ned Beatty as a gentlemanly but ruthless
My problems with the film stem primarily from its awkward
structure of flashbacks which robs the main story of any real drama.
Going into it, we already know the outcome. So it merely becomes
a question of how they are going to get from point A to point B.
Some of SWEET LAND is very predictable, some of it is surprising.
What holds the audience's interest are the performances and
Selim's solid direction.
MPAA Rating: PG for brief partial nudity & mild language
Running time: 110 mins.
Viewed at the Ziegfeld Theater
|©2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.