While it sometimes stumbles toward its emotional and evocative ending, Judge Bill Gibron still enjoyed this visually stunning period piece on the post-WWI immigrant experience.
A love story.
The year is 1920. The United States is still suffering from the ravages of World War I. Suspicion and anguish lie in the immediate future of immigrants arriving in this country. Young bride Inge (Elizabeth Reaser, Grey's Anatomy) just wants to marry the man, Olaf (Tim Guinee), who was arranged for her. But the local Minnesota priest, Minister Sorrenson (John Heard, Big) will not perform the ceremony. You see, Olaf is Norwegian, but his proposed spouse is German—and what with all the hostilities between the nations, Inge is taken for a spy, or worse, a subversive. They will need a judge's approval for the nuptials, yet the court will not issue permission until the lady provides paperwork of her identification and planned citizenship. Naturally, without a certificate as man and wife, Inge and Olaf cannot live together, so she ends up with best friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming, Neverwas) and his extended family. In between the inherent hardships of the local morals, the language barrier, and the pre-Depression destitution of the farmers, Inge learns to survive. She even ends up living in Olaf's house, the desperate husband-to-be sleeping in the barn to keep things prim and proper. When Frandsen fails to pay his mortgage, his wife's cousin Harmo (Ned Beatty, Network), the town's banker, decides to foreclose. Of course, our couple in waiting can't stand by and watch them dispossessed. They will do anything to protect the Sweet Land that has given them a home, and a life, in this baffling brave new world.
Though it begins rather awkwardly, the pleasant period piece Sweet Land manages to settle into its amiable immigrant storyline quite nicely. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Ali Selim (from a short story by Will Weaver), this look at a small Minnesota farming community and the sudden stir an arranged bride from Germany creates has a lot of good things going for it. The performances are first rate, the rural vistas are stunning, and the inherent drama in the post-World War I situation makes for some fine foundational material. All Selim has to do is manage everything with a small amount of artistic expertise, and the narrative will go over like gangbusters. Unfortunately, he makes a few missteps along the way. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the pidgin English aspect of the opening act. Since Inge cannot speak the language and the other characters have long since acclimated to the United States, we get a lot of mangled dialogue that is supposed to pass for sweet-natured comedy. Indeed, the movie seems to be saying, "Hey, check out the foreign gal who can't quite talk right." Then there's the oddball prejudice angle. Inge is German, affiliated with the Socialist party. This is like escorting a black man into the middle of a Klan meeting, according to the surrounding citizenry. The minute they hear of her Teutonic tendencies, they shun her like a drunk at a temperance meeting. It takes her the entire film to win their reluctant respect and, even then, we never really get closure on the racial divide.
But perhaps the biggest initial stumbling block is Selim's decision to start the movie in the present, and then slowly work his way back in time. We see an old woman die. Her middle-aged grandson is then given charge of the property, which he plans on selling to a developer for a couple million smackers. Before he closes the deal, his mind drifts back to the death of his grandfather during the Vietnam era. Suddenly, the radio is blaring stories about LBJ, and our dead matron is now the very vital, and very old, Inge. We learn that her husband of several decades has just passed, and it's his funeral that finally funnels us back to the story's literal starting point. It can be quite confusing at times, especially when characters we haven't been introduced to yet are on screen, making statements of some emotional or logistical significance. In fact, it takes about 15 minutes for the movie to equalize after this whirlwind introduction, and then there are the other elements mentioned before to deal with. In fact, it's safe to say that Sweet Land doesn't really get its cinematic sea legs until the one-hour mark. Luckily, Selim has just started to tell the story of this harried couple, the society that will not let them marry, and the obvious affection they are starting to feel for each other. In the lead, Elizabeth Reaser is very good. She has an ice queen's façade, and she carries off the confused foreigner bit with grace and good nature. As Olaf, TV actor Tim Guinee brings the right amount of personable pioneer spirit. Together, they make a fine team and provide the audience with a real rooting interest.
On the outskirts, fine supporting turns are provided by Ned Beatty (as a semi-heartless, mortgage-foreclosing banker), John Heard (as a weirdly intolerant priest), and Lois Smith as Inge in her later years. Oddly enough, one of the weaker facets is the usually reliable Alan Cumming. Perhaps it has something to do with this being a 1920s era setting. No matter how hard he tries, the boisterous Brit always comes across like a contemporary guy. Here, even in a bad bowl haircut and old-timey clothes, he's just a mannerism away from modern. In addition, Selim sort of lets us down by focusing so much time on Inge, Olaf, and their farm. Sure, the last-act harvest where the two must go it alone (the rest of the town won't help such obvious outcasts) is wonderfully effective and beautifully filmed, but we'd like to know a little more about the community that curses them so. Aside from the fact that Cumming's character can't keep it in his pants (he has nine kids), we are left wondering about the rest of the insular town. Still, with many wonderful sequences of people connecting, of solid self-discovery and determination, Sweet Land soars more than it sinks. It offers an interesting perspective on a time period in this country few are familiar with. It also has an intriguing tactile quality. We feel this farmer's life, from the cold of the windswept fields to the backbreaking labor required to keep things going. By keeping his story small, Ali Selim misses out on a few intriguing issues. But by focusing on a few important individuals, he succeeds in a cinematic situation that would undermine even the most seasoned veteran.
Brought to the digital domain by Fox after a meticulous and slow 20-month rollout release, this 2005 production looks pretty good on DVD—or, in the case of this critic's experience, the screener disc the studio sent for review. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful, bright, and loaded with detail. It also contained an intermittent studio logo to remind the viewer of its less-than-final-product status. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround also delivered a decent aural experience. From the distant sound of squawking ducks to the unusually primitive musical score (single instruments, or on occasion, clever combinations), the sonics come across loudly and clearly. As for added content, there is the usual batch of preview trailers, a theatrical ad for the film itself, a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and a full-length audio commentary offering insights from Selim, editor James Stanger, producer Gil Bellows, and actors Reaser and Guinee. The "making of" is mildly interesting, if only for learning that the director has been working on this film for the last 15 years. The alternate narrative track is also informative, since it lays out a great many of the production pros and cons the cast and crew had to face. It's not the most substantive collection of added content, but it's good for an unknown quantity like this.
Successfully shaking off some of the rougher bits brought on at the beginning, Sweet Land turns out to be a nice little outsider diversion. It may not be the most emotionally complex or epic exploration of the immigrant experience, but for what he tries to accomplish, filmmaker Ali Selim manages marvelously. Here's hoping his career continues forward. Not guilty.
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