“Sweet Land” is one of the best dramas of the year. But it’s no name cast, small production company and non-existent distribution are getting it shown in very few theaters guaranteeing a slim to non-existent audience. Some people are finding it, but they have to look very hard. “Sweet Land” will just have to find an audience on DVD.
Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), a bride in an arranged marriage, arrives in rural Minnesota in 1920 unable to speak or understand English. She waits at the train station for Olaf (Tim Guinee) and Frandsen (Alan Cumming) who arrive late to claim her and take her home. With only an old, creased photo to help her identify her new husband, Inge is drawn to Frandsen because he is friendly and personable but is surprised to learn she is to marry Olaf. At their local church, Minister Sorrenson (John Heard) prepares to marry them but learns Inge is German, not an ideal thing so shortly after World War I. The minister won’t do it; he can’t bring her into their tight Norwegian community. Olaf begs and pleads until the Minister suggests they try a civil ceremony at the county seat, more than a day’s drive away. As he lost a son in the war, the Judge won’t do it either; he can’t be sure she isn’t a spy. They decide to write her a minister in her hometown in Germany, to try to verify her identity, but that will take some time. In the meantime, Inge goes to live with Frandsen, his wife Brownie (Alex Kingston, TV’s “ER”, “Croupier”) and their many children.
“Sweet Land” is a quiet, dramatic film depicting the lives and struggles of these characters. With no special effects marring a single frame, this is a film to savor and transport you.
Beginning in a more present time, we watch as Lars (Stephen Pelinski), Inge’s middle-aged grown grandson, sits at her bed side providing comfort. After she dies, he arranges for her funeral and begins to think back to the late 60s when his grandmother (Lois Smith) struggles with the death of her husband, Olaf. These moments lead to Inge’s arrival in Minnesota and the beginning of her relationship with Olaf.
Olaf (Guinee) is a farmer and seems more concerned about working the fields, possibly why he arranged for a mail order bride. When they arrive to pick up Inge (Reaser), she assumes Frandsen (Cumming) is her husband because he is friendly and welcoming. As they face one obstacle after another, Olaf gets more and more frustrated which is exactly what he wanted to avoid, why he sent away for a bride in the first place. He didn’t want to spend time courting a woman. So as the obstacles mount, he becomes more annoyed, making him less attractive to her. But Inge senses there may be something there, under all the layers.
“Sweet Land” is about their struggle to get married and to get the community to accept her.
“Sweet Land” works so well because of the performances. It also helps that we don’t recognize Reaser and Guinee from other films, something that will no doubt change. Each is able to disappear into their persona, helping to make the characters all the more believable.
From the moment we meet Inge in 1920, Reaser shows her wide eyed innocence easily enough, but below that we see hints of her vulnerability, unease and excitedness at being in a brand new country. As she can understand little of what others are saying, she is thrust into one situation after another. Gradually, she begins to put things together and start to take control, as much as she can in 1920.
Guinee’s Olaf is a quiet man used to living and being alone. He seems to regard Inge as a necessary evil but as circumstances keep them apart, you can see his attitude towards her slowly change; he longs for and needs her. It is this period of adjustment that will probably make their marriage last. When they finally work out all of the details, he has come to admire and lover her, he has come to know her.
The memorable supporting cast is led by Lois Smith playing the elderly Inge. As she mourns for her husband, she realizes she needs to help her grandson and her lifelong friend, Frandsen (Paul Sand), himself a widower and suffering from old age, deal with her husband’s death. This leads to current day when Lars has to decide what to do with his grandparent’s farm. On the one hand, developers want the land and are willing to pay handsomely for it. On the other, it holds a lot of memories for him. Will those memories outweigh the financial rewards?
You will remember “Sweet Land”. Seek it out or rent it on DVD.