This little independent movie, adapted from a short story by Will Weaver, tells a simple but heartwarming period tale that wouldn’t be out of place on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Inge Ottenberg (Elizabeth Reaser), a young woman who speaks little English, shows up in Minnesota around 1919 to marry Olaf (Tim Guinee), a bachelor farmer, in a match arranged by long distance. Unfortunately, she’s not only German but has a socialist background—facts that create problems with her attempt to gain legal status in the years immediately following World War I and the Bolshevik revolution and cause her to be shunned by most of the close-knit Norwegian community she struggles to find a place in. The narrative is simply about how she eventually wins people over, most importantly the man she’d come to wed.
But what might have been cloying and mawkish isn’t in this case. You might say that “Sweet Land” ultimately succeeds in the same way its heroine does—a bit clumsily, certainly haltingly, but without sacrificing its essential dignity. What sets it apart from fare of the lesser Hallmark variety isn’t merely that it’s not slick in the American television fashion; it’s that in a very real way it seems to have a European sensibility, not unlike that of “Pelle the Conqueror,” for example. That 1988 film may be superior to this one, but the effect isn’t dissimilar, and the qualitative difference between them is surprisingly small.
There are weaknesses, of course. An obviously modest budget isn’t entirely compensated for by the enthusiasm of the behind-the-scenes crew, including production designer James R. Bakkom and costumer Eden Miller. Their work is generally fine, but there are moments when the picture resembles a local historical pageant. There’s also a problem with some of writer-director Ali Selim’s structural choices. As edited by Janes Stanger, the film shuffles various time frames, later ones involving a much older Inge (Lois Smith) and her grandson Lars (played by Patrick Heusinger and Stephen Pelinski at different stages) at one point dealing with the death of Olaf and at another with whether or not to sell the family farm after she passes away as well. Though Smith is very good, and the point about tradition is decently made, the chronological shifts aren’t pulled off entirely successfully. And the plot thread involving the local minister (John Heard) who initially refuses to wed Inge and Olaf but gradually comes around, doesn’t quite work; the transitions seem abrupt and unprepared, and Heard’s refusal even to attempt an accent—I’m presuming he’s supposed to be an immigrant, too—is a puzzle.
But Reaser and Guinee, both likable and affecting, provide ample compensation, even if he occasionally overplays Olaf’s bumbling manner. And there are very strong turns by Alan Cumming, as a neighboring farmer (played in his older years by Paul Sand); Alex Kingston, as his vivacious wife; and Ned Beatty, as a penny-pinching banker. All four create rich, vibrant characters out of what might have been caricatures. (Cumming also deserves kudos for serving as co-producer.) And Selim moves the film along at an unhurried gait that seems entirely right.
“Sweet Land” touches on profound themes of tolerance, family and tradition, but for the most part does so with admirable lightness of touch, without becoming hectoring about them. It’s a generous and—appropriately, given the title—sweet-natured portrait of a time long past that dramatizes perennial human realities without becoming either overly sentimental or clumsily didactic. It may require searching out, but is worth the effort.