Sweetland

March, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Ali Selim

Starring:Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Lois Smith, Ned Beatty, Alan Cumming, Alex Kingston, John Heard, and Patrick Heusinger

Sweet Land

This Hallmark Hall of Fame look-alike tries, without success, to turn the soft-focus romanticism of Sarah Plain and Tall into the social commentary of Terrance Malick’s classic Days of Heaven. Director Ali Selim, who’s garnered considerable fame as the director of successful commercials, launches his feature film career with this examination of a post WW I arranged marriage between Inge, (Elizabeth Reaser) a young German woman and Olaf, (Tom Guinee) an impossibly stoic farmer of Norwegian extraction who ekes out a living on a small farm in rural Minnesota. Despite Ms. Reaser’s quietly luminous presence and Ned Beatty’s splendidly nasty turn as a grasping banker, Sweet Land collapses under Selim’s archly pretentious film-school style. 

Inge and Olaf just want to get married, but anti-German prejudice in the wake of the war, religious intolerance and bureaucratic immigration- bungling conspire to thwart their plans, forcing Olaf to sleep in his barn while his bride-to-be takes over his house and bed. She struggles to learn enough English to pass her citizenship exam and thus bring Minister Sorrensen, Olaf’s pastor, to the point where he’ll perform the ceremony. But first must come obligatory scenes of life on the farm, church picnics and baseball games, rejection by narrow-minded neighbors, a farm foreclosure/auction and hand-harvesting the corn crop, each presented in post-card pretty images delivered at such a glacial pace the audience can be forgiven for dozing off rather than identifying with these greeting-card lovers. 

Despite the director’s obvious efforts at presenting a historically accurate picture of quiet rural community life, Sweet Land’s images are as contrived as a high fashion shoot for Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar; even the ancient photograph Selim uses as a device to connect three generations of Olaf’s family can’t avoid appearing as staged as the pair of burials which bracket the film’s plot, an adaptation of Will Weaver’s short story. 

  Alan Cummings’ cloying performance as Olaf’s best friend  ranks as one of the most obnoxiously executed screen appearances of the decade, while Guinee’s attempts to reflect stoicism render his Olaf constipated, rather than resolute. Mis-casting, (John Heard as a bi-linguial Lutheran minister who quotes Keats?) discontinuity in the film’s timeline, (the death scene of one character precedes her burial of someone else while members of different generations are introduced as though they belonged in the same age cohort) and a lack of subtitles to convey Inge’s thoughts before she mutters in broken English half-way through the proceedings all contribute to making this an exercise in directorial ego to be devoutly avoided.  

The verdict? A supposed hymn on the ability of endurance to sustain enduring love turns out to reflect instead the director’s  condescending attitudes about the virtues of lifelong devotion and committed relationships.     

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