Hearts at 60 Below
Sweet Land mixes lutefisk and love
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
SWEET LAND: Written and directed by Ali Selim. Inspired by a short story by Will Weaver. Music, Mark Orton. Starring Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Alan Cumming, John Heard, Alex Kingston, Ned Beatty and Lois Smith. Forward Entertainment, 2006. PG. 110 minutes.
Let’s get right to it: Sweet Land is a sweet movie. It takes a certain kind of confidence to dub your film “A Love Story” in this fairly cynical day and age, but Sweet Land actually is such a thing: a quiet, gentle story about building love and trust, set in the sprawling farmlands of 1920s Minnesota.
Inge Altenberg (Elizabeth Reaser), a young German woman, arrives in Minnesota to marry a man she’s never met. Speaking only a tiny bit of English, without proper documentation and assumed to be Norwegian on account of her originating address in Norway, Inge runs into problems from the start. She mistakes her intended’s chatty friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming) for the man she’s supposed to marry, and Minister Sorrensen (John Heard) won’t marry her to Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee) for fear she might be a spy, or at least a troublesome influence. Still, it could be worse; a young Norwegian woman Inge meets at the train station arrives bearing a letter she can’t read —one that told her not to come.
Ali Selim’s film is set within a double set of future bookends, one at Olaf’s death, as Inge sits with her grandson and a forgetful Frandsen, and one at Inge’s own death, when that grandson is grown up and facing the decision of whether to sell the old family farm. The elder Inge is played by Lois Smith, whose kind face and caring demeanor say much about Inge’s years with Olaf.
Sweet Land moves easily between the past and two futures, often trailing from an old photo or a turn of the head from one era to the next. The graceful time-shifts are part of the film’s impressive style. With lovely use of color and spare but cozy sets, Selim discovers a similar beauty in the wallpaper of a farmhouse kitchen and the seemingly endless gold of a cornfield. The attention paid to the everyday moment — baking a pie, harvesting a field, feeding pigs — is entrancing.
When the wedding doesn’t happen, Inge is shuttled off to live with Frandsen’s sprawling family, as it wouldn’t be proper for her to stay at Olaf’s house. But she makes her way there anyway (Olaf, knowing his neighbors better, goes to sleep in the barn). Gradually, Olaf comes to welcome her company. He could use the help with his farm; Olaf’s catchphrase is “Banking and farming don’t mix.” The negative results of that mix are painfully, perfectly illustrated, as are the societal pressures to conform and the ultimately tight-knit nature of the farm community. But the weightier issues, timely as they remain, play second fiddle to the beautifully illustrated connection that builds between Olaf and Inge as they work side by side, each slowly moving into the other’s orbit. Sweet Land tells not only the story of a lifelong love, but a story of family, both the kind you’re born into and the kind you choose.
Sweet Land opens Friday, March 2 at the Bijou