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"Sweet Land": A soft-spoken love story with strong messages
Special to The Seattle Times
"Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story."
That quote from Don Snyder's "Of Time and Memory" begins writer-director Ali Selim's auspicious movie debut, "Sweet Land." Nothing could more accurately reflect this lovely picture's sense of generosity.
Based on Will Weaver's short story, "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," Selim's script is set in early-1920s Minnesota, where a Norwegian farmer, Olaf (Tim Guinee), plans to marry an immigrant he's never met. Her name is Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), her heritage is primarily German, and immediately this causes problems.
Anti-German sentiment is still strong following World War I. Inge lacks official immigration papers, so the suspicious local minister (John Heard) calls off the wedding. She ends up living with the large family of Olaf's friend and neighbor, Frandsen (Alan Cumming), but Olaf and Inge can't really be separated and eventually they fall in love.
Since Inge doesn't know English and Olaf uses few words to communicate, much of their relationship is established through gestures and glances and the gradual relaxation of boundaries between strangers. While this might seem like a limitation, the actors always treat the verbal minimalism as an opportunity. So does the resourceful cinematographer, David Tumblety, who shot much of the film in the "magic hour" light that helped give "Days of Heaven" its distinctive look.
Reaser starts off by emphasizing Inge's vulnerability; gradually she suggests a sense of confidence that blossoms as Inge learns English and bonds with Frandsen's wife, Brownie (Alex Kingston). While they do have one extended conversation, it's almost upstaged by the luscious pie Brownie bakes and both women devour.
Guinee, a veteran actor whose film/television career goes back 20 years, has never had such a rich big-screen role. Olaf starts out as something of a pill, more concerned about his farm than he is with Inge's situation, but he has his reasons, and this stoic quality fits with the response he makes to a moral dilemma later in the film.
Selim makes excellent use of his supporting cast, including Ned Beatty as an unyielding banker; Lois Smith as the older Inge, whose memories provide the story's framework; and Cumming as the kind of charming, slightly irresponsible technogeek who pays more attention to magic-lantern shows than he does to paying the mortgage.
The story ultimately depends on a couple of sudden reversals (one reminiscent of "It's a Wonderful Life") that might seem sentimental in another context. But Selim grounds the story so firmly in its characters that he never hits a false note.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company