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20th Century Fox presents
Sweet Land (2005)

"Let us hope we are all proceeded in the world by a love story."
- quote from Don Snyder's Of Time and Memory

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: July 09, 2007

Stars: Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Alan Cumming
Other Stars: John Heard, Alex Kingston, Ned Beatty, Lois Smith, Paul Sand, Patrick Heusinger, Stephen Pelinski, Jodie Markell, Sage Kermes, Kirsten Frantzich, Stephen Yoakam, Karen Landry, Charlotta Mohlin
Director: Ali Selim

MPAA Rating: PG for brief partial nudity and mild language
Run Time: 01h:50m:39s
Release Date: July 10, 2007
UPC: 024543449744
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-BB+ B-

DVD Review

Ali Selim's 2005 Sweet Land is based on a short story by Will Weaver entitled A Gravestone Made of Wheat. It took Selim 15 years to get his adaptation to the big screen, and while it certainly didn't set any box office records, thankfully there's the opportunity now for the DVD release to reach a deservedly larger audience. As an added plus beyond the story itself, the film sports some picturesque cinematography from David Tumblety and features a gentle Mark Orton score that is rural and homespun without being sappy.

Sweet Land is a love story at its core, about the Victrola-clutching Inge, a German mail-order bride who arrives in a tiny Norwegian farming community in Minnesota to meet her arranged husband-to-be Olaf, just as the first World War is coming to an end. Rampant anti-German sentiment does little to make her welcome, and an assortment of red tape, language barriers, and Old World ways only serve to compound her assimilation.

Selim tells the story of bride-to-be and husband-to-be backwards, beginning with the modern day death of an elderly Inge (Lois Smith), then flashing back to the 1960s to Olaf's death, and then dipping backwards once again to her initial arrival in Minnesota. This somewhat unusual structure reinforces the obvious right out of the box, that Inge and Olaf lived a long life together, and so when the 1920s-period story takes hold the viewer already knows they're going to get together eventually. This gives Selim the luxury of allowing the initially uncomfortable romance to take its own gentle time to develop, because this is ultimately not simply about their marriage, but about something far more long lasting.

Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee are the 1920s-era Inge and Olaf, and their performances are remarkably compelling in their simplicity. Reaser's eyes speak volumes, especially early on when things aren't going so well, and Guinee's shy farmer is a study in single-mindedness. Their multi-cultural dialogue—featuring combinations of English, German, and Norwegian—turn some scenes into a hodgepodge of spoken languages, and yet at no time is it not possible to know what they are talking about. Selim purposely avoids subtitling the German/Norwegian blocks of dialogue, and it is up to Reaser and Guinee to convey all manner of emotion in a foreign language. My guess is that probably sounds much simpler than it actually is.

And it's not just Reaser and Guinee that make this work, because Selim has an outstanding supporting cast, including Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston as the financially-troubled friends of Olaf. They could easily have been anonymous secondary filler, but they add a believable three-dimensionality to their roles. Cumming and Kingston's loving couple have a gaggle of children (one character says "she drops one every year"), yet it's clear they are very much in love, in the kind of way we imagine Inge and Olaf will hopefully be; Kingston, in particular is, is proud, adorable, and strong, even when faced with adversity. John Heard plays a morally divided minister struggling to hold his community together after the arrival of Reaser's Inge, while Ned Beatty gets to dabble in a near villain role as a banker ready to evict families and auction off farmland.

Sweet Land is a love story about not belonging as much as it is about finding where you were meant to be.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Sweet Land comes from 20th Century Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Some of my minor complaints (grain, ghosting, shimmer) may in fact stem from the screener copy, and I trust the street versions will look cleaner. Colors, however, remain vibrant, and some of the farmland sequences feature some especially bold blues and golds. Fleshtones are on the mark, and black levels sport solid shadow delineation.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There's one audio option, and it's Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The presentation is simple, much like the story itself; the only enhanced element is the beautiful Mark Orton score, which fills the rear channels on a number of occasions. Voice quality is clear, though the mix of spoken languages (often changing in mid-sentence) may have you initially thinking otherwise.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Ultimate Gift, The Illusionist
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Tim Guinee, Elizabeth Reaser, James Stanger, Gil Bellows, Ali Selim
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Extras consist of three trailers (including one for the feature) as well as a commentary track from writer/director Ali Selim, producer Gil Bellows, editor James Stanger, and leads Tim Guinee and Elizabeth Reaser. There's a fair amount of discussion early on about Selim's 15-year adaptation of Will Weaver's short story before things move on to an interesting take on some of the corners that had to be cut in order make the film for such a modest budget, including the "six-foot box" that doubles as a train car. Reaser admits to freaking out about having to learn German and Norwegian.

Sweet Land: A Labor of Love Story (11m:19s) doesn't break any new ground as a "behind the scenes" look, but it does offer an array of on-location comments from Selim and most of the principle cast, as well as writer Will Weaver. The participants all seem to share in the same sense of wonder at the simplicity of the storytelling based singularly on the promise of love.

The disc is cut into 32 chapters, with optional subtitles in English, French, or Spanish.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Ali Selim's labor of love Sweet Land is a beautiful charmer of a love story, one that is actually filled with flesh-and-blood characters to care about. I typically tend to shy away from period romance pieces, but this one drew me in immediately and easily carried me along with it. A quartet of very strong performances from Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Alan Cumming, and Alex Kingston give Selim's film the necessary human element to make it all come together.

Highly recommended.


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