Movie Review: Sweet Land (2005)
by Alan F. Zundel
It isn’t often my wife and I find a movie we both can enjoy. She leans toward warm and fuzzy family fare, and I prefer—well, just about anything else. We discovered “Sweet Land” the other evening, and it hit the sweet spot for both of us. It’s a lovely, lovely love story.
Despite winning numerous awards after its release just ten years ago, I had never heard of it. Hollywood was not interested in the project (maybe that’s a good sign), so screenwriter/co-producer/director Ali Selim spent fifteen years raising the money and getting it made himself. Based on a short story by Will Weaver, it’s the tale of a mail-order bride from Germany who travels to Minnesota to meet her husband-to-be and encounters anti-German prejudice.
The film starts with a scene of an older woman dying in her bed as a middle-aged man watches. When she expires he touches her head tenderly and begins to cry. It’s obvious he loved her very much. (The scene was so well done I am getting a little teary remembering it.)
We soon learn the man is her grandson Lars, and in flashback he thinks of the death of his grandfather thirty years earlier, when he was sixteen. Lars and his grandmother Inge buried her husband in the farm fields behind the house. Now he’s struggling with a decision about selling the farmland.
This opening sequence was a little confusing, as it moves back and forth in time and you struggle to sort out some of the other characters, but it all goes by in nine minutes and is but a prologue to the main story. Lois Smith as the grandmother and Stephen Pelinski as middle-aged Lars give exceptional performances that draw you in despite the prologue’s brevity.
As Lars recalls a story his grandmother told him, the movie launches back in time to show us the love story of his grandparents. From this point on the movie is more than good—it’s wonderful. It’s a simple story, with characters you come to care about as they come to care about each other.
Inge as a young woman is winningly played by Elizabeth Reaser, perhaps best known for her role as Esme in the “Twilight” movie series. We first see her in a train compartment with a gramophone in her lap, looking out the window in anticipation. When she reaches the station no one is there to greet her, so she practices her very limited English while she waits. Her eyes in this scene show a lot about her: her fear, her hope, and her inquisitive intelligence.
When two men finally come to pick her up, she mistakes the friendly one for her betrothed because his companion seems so taciturn. They go to a church where she learns the taciturn one is Olaf, her intended. Tim Guinee also does a fine job, with fleeting facial expressions hinting at the shyness behind Olaf’s seemingly gruff exterior.
But this is at the time of the First World War, and when the pastor learns Inge is German and cannot speak English, he refuses to conduct the ceremony. The rest of the movie is about Olaf and Inge’s struggle to overcome this awkward situation, coming to know and love each other in the ensuing weeks as they pursue their goal.
That the film was a labor of love for Ali Selim is obvious in the care taken with all the details. His writing and direction, the cinematography (David Tumblety), the editing (James Stanger), the music (Thomas Lieberman), the location work, all show that Selim’s dedication was contagious. The supporting actors rise to the occasion as well, especially Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston in the key roles of Olaf’s friend Frandsen and his wife Brownie.
The movie is filled with humor, tenderness, and humanity, bringing you to a happy ending that is not contrived at all but rather earned by what precedes it. It touched me and entertained me, and is a film I will have to watch again.
You may have missed this one when it first ran in theaters. I recommend you seek it out; I doubt you will be disappointed.