Before I start this review proper, I’ll own up to the fact that I’m a sucker for films set in the bleak Midwestern states of America.
From the opening moments of The Wizard of Oz (1939) through to the many scene setting shots in Capote (2005) and onto the stunning vistas on show in 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the sight of those cold, wide open spaces dotted with the odd farmhouse says more than any number of pages of dialogue could about the kind of lives those living in these areas might be leading.
Sweet Land tells the story of German immigrant Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) who arrives in the Midwestern State of Minnesota in 1920 to marry Olaf (Tim Guinee), a young Norwegian farmer whom she has never met.
Aided by Olaf’s friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming), Inge and Olaf try their best to be married by Minister Sorrenson (John Heard) while also trying to overcome local prejudice, all the while slowly getting to know each other.
While Sweet Land touches upon darker themes of racism and the fear of foreigners so prevalent after the First World War, it also takes some time to establish Inge’s feelings as she tries to make a new life for herself in this alien country. The camera clearly loves Reaser, lingering on her for many a shot as she comprehends each new setback.
Life is injected into the first half of the film by Cumming, his character a comedy foil for the stoic Olaf. An appearance by Ned Beatty also perks things up, a touch of class being added to proceedings.
The central relationship that we are asked to buy into is believable up to a point, with Reaser in particular keeping the story moving. Guinee is let down by a duller character who is given little motivation other than to get married. Olaf may be seen at work in the fields for a few scenes, but there is little sign of what really makes him tick.
The gradual attraction between the two leads is never rushed (nothing is rushed in this film) but this does mean that the scenes in present day Minnesota which top and tail the film, as Inge mourns her late husband, have less meaning to them: if the audience has never even seen the couple kiss, how can they feel sad about the end of this supposedly great love affair?
The few establishing shots of the countryside, while effective in setting the scene, aren’t enough to make this into my list of classic Midwest movies, with cinematographer David Tumblety no match for the mighty Roger Deakins in the aforementioned Assassination of Jesses James.
A perfectly servicable film for a Sunday afternoon, Sweet Land should appeal to those who like a sweet love story but who don’t mind if there’s not too much love involved.
A short featurette and a trailer complete the package, the director commentary apparently available on the Region 1 release sadly absent from this version.
Sweet Land: A Love Story (certificate PG), is released on DVD from 19 January, rrp £15.99.
Review by Jonathan Melville