Cinema Signal:

Life on the Farm:
A Pictorial Journey of Minnesota's Farmland and its People
. "The Sweet Land"

As sweet as this mail order bride story is, it avoids being something only the director's mother would love. It sheds light on the intolerance that pervaded early America despite the fine words in the constitution. In small farm communities across the heartland, prejucide and smug superiority was rampant, if this gentle story based on Will Weaver's short story, A Gravestone Made of Wheat" and director Ali Selim's screenplay adapted from it is to be believed.

Shortly after German immigrant Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) arrives in rural Minnesota toting her wind-up victrola and a couple of bags, she and husband-to-be Olaf (Tim Guinee) learn what prejudice in the guise of social morality means to them. Minister Sorrenson (John Heard) refuses to marry the couple, fearing a German lady lacking papers might plague the community. In 1920, The Germans are recent enemies, after all. As far as a civil wedding is concerned, the judge won't even see them.

They therefore can't even live together in Olaf's nice house on his farmland. Instead, Inge is put up at friends Frandsen (Alan Cumming) and Brownie's (Alex Kingston) child-filled house where communal baths are a one-fill public spectacle. Bearing it no longer, Inge takes the bull by the horns and slips into Olaf's house when no one is up and looking. Community intolerance and quasi-legal hurdles be damned. Of course, country bumpkin Olaf, once he gets over the brazen courage of the act, elects to make it all right by sleeping in the barn.

Though this lasts long enough for an impregnable bond to establish itself between virtual husband and wife, it's not without the sulfur and brimstone condemnation of the community misleaders.

Various scenes and moments within scenes have a tendency to get awkward from a filmmaking standpoint, but the steady simplicity of the tale, stately compositions of the flat land (by cinematographer David Tumbelty), and the secure red-headed beauty of the principal actress never lets go of our interest. The story secures a velvet grip on our wishes for ultimate justice and relaxation of hardnose attitudes and there's pretty much nothing that diverts the involvement.

But, of course, we pretty much know how it will all work out since the main narrative comes after a prologue that gives us hints about the outcome -- a prologue I dare say that is more mystifying than helpful. Be that as it may, Reaser, 31 and primarily a TV actress ("Saved," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent", should be afforded the opportunity to shine in features from here on out, though future roles may not be such a slam dunk as this nostalgic one is.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Elizabeth Reaser
Mail-order pioneer facing 1920 prejudice.

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