Thursday, January 25, 2007
Movie review: Sweet Land
Director Ali Selim's rural tale succeeds through subtlety and storytelling grace.
If I start this review by saying that Sweet Land is a story about death and hard living in a country where people distrust anything and everyone beyond the radius of their horizon line, don't let that put you off. Because, thankfully, it's also (and more importantly) about the mysterious, ineffable beauty of life and the unexpected love and acceptance that can sneak up on us while we're too busy plowing through our daily chores to notice.
Calling a film "quiet" may be technically incorrect (unless it's a silent film), but I think you get what I mean - Sweet Land has no chase scenes or shootouts or countdowns to disaster - it's more about character development than plot, although things do happen in the course of the film that will surprise you. Still, it's the characters who dominate the story, and director Ali Selim has a set of very talented actors at his disposal to carry the day.
Elizabeth Reaser portrays Inge, a German emigre (by way of Norway) who gambles everything on a chance at a new life in Minnesota with a bachelor Norwegian farmer whom she's never met. That's right: broad strokes of Garrison Keillor here and no bones about it, as scripters Selim and Will Weaver start with the Lake Wobegon mythology and strip away the homespun humor until all that remains is the land-centric cynicism of a harsh northern folk who worship a practical Lutheran god, and would prefer to forget that the patriarch of their denomination was actually German.
In fact, since the temporal setting of the tale is immediately post-WWII, everyone in the small farming community is abashed by the fact that Inge is German rather than Norwegian, as they all had been led to expect. Particularly surprised is her betrothed, Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee), who initially shows less interest in Inge than does his neighbor, the happy-go-lucky Frandsen (Alan Cumming), who's donated his time (and car) to retrieve Inge and her luggage from the train station.
Mr. Guinee is a remarkably expressive actor who I initially confused with Nathan Fillion ("Mal" of the Firefly/Serenity Joss Whedon space franchise). Call me superficial (I've been called worse), but the resemblance is strong, isn't it? Olaf's initial coldness to Inge is quickly revealed to result from an incapacitating shyness, and in true Keillor bachelor farmer fashion it takes him the better part of a season to even invite the woman to dinner. But when they warm to each other and realize the full measure of their love, their devotion - tempered as it has been by adversity from all quarters - ultimately proves to be the unifying force that enriches not only their lives, but those of their hard-shelled neighbors.
The wonderful character actor John Heard plays Minister Sorrensen as the inflexible mouthpiece of an exclusionist faith, but even his uncompromising path to the kingdom of heaven has side doors onto the premises, it turns out. The equally wonderful Ned Beatty (as Harmo) holds rural court as the local banker with his hands in everyone's bread basket, who will never bend a fiscal rule - even for blood kin.
With its luminous rural visuals and endless dappled skies, and its presumption of the inherent goodness and healing power of community, Sweet Land threads a connecting path between Days of Heaven and It's a Wonderful Life, and it does so with the subtlety and storytelling grace of a Wyeth canvas. At 110 minutes, it builds to a slow boil, but a fervent one.
AL GORE-RELATED PRODUCTION NOTE: Sweet Land, it turns out, is a "Carbon Neutral" production, meaning that the CO2 emissions produced over the course of the filming were calculated and later counteracted by donations to various green-friendly energy producing industries. Take THAT, holier-than-thou Hollywood liberal pinko glamerati!
SPOUSAL PREFERENCE: "I think you ought to like what you see when you wake up in the morning and look at your wife." - Frandsen to Olaf, in regard to the pleasing appearance of his emigrant wife-to-be.
YOU KNOW YOU'RE SKATING ON THIN ICE WHEN THE CONVERSATION WITH YOUR BANKER GOES LIKE THIS:
"How's the crop?"
"It had better be."