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The Sweeter the Land, the Harsher the Film

‘Sweetland’ surprises in the way that only Canadian movies do.

Dorothy Woodend 23 May 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Sometimes a film comes along that is so resolutely, profoundly Canadian that all one can do is give in to its bleak and flinty ways.

Sweetland is just such a film. Based on the 2014 novel by Michael Crummey of Newfoundland and Labrador, it follows a tough old boot of a former lighthouse keeper named Moses (Mark Lewis Jones) who lives in the rural community of Sweetland, Newfoundland.

The provincial government can’t be arsed to provide services to remote outcroppings like Sweetland any longer, and it’s offering the residents a financial package as an incentive to move. The catch is that everyone in the village must agree to sign on to the new deal to pick everyone up and move away. Moses and his friend Loveless (Lawrence Barry) are the only holdouts, much to the consternation of the other residents.

The only people who have some sympathy with Moses’ stubborn desire to stay are Jesse (Cail Turner), a towheaded otherworldly sprite of a child, and Moses’ old flame Queenie, played by Mary Walsh.

As much as Sweetland is a serious, moody drama, a trademark zing of Newfoundland zaniness sneaks through, courtesy of the cast members who cut their teeth in the beloved Newfoundland sketch comedy troupe CODCO.

The troupe originated as a theatrical revue riffing on “Newfie” humour in 1973, and CBC television picked it up for a short but memorable run as a TV series in the late ’80s and ’90s. The cast included Tommy Sexton, Greg Malone and Cathy Jones. Plus Sweetland castmates Mary Walsh and Andy Jones.

Elements of earlier sketch shows like Second City Television were much in evidence in CODCO’s quirky approach, as was its influence on other hit Canadian comedy series like Kids in the Hall and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Despite its wide-ranging influence, those who were there for the series’ original run know this to be true: its genius was the fact that CODCO was its own weird thing. It was surreal, political and deeply Canadian.

Many of the show’s characters remain sharply etched in my memory. It’s hard not to watch a film that makes such rich use of Newfoundland and not have CODCO’s comedic shades circle up from the deep, like ghosts of hilarity past.

Even as I was watching the trials and tribulations of poor old Moses, wandering lonely as a cloud in Sweetland, another part of me was waiting for some jokes. There are a few, thankfully, but this film is a rather serious affair for the most part.

Sweetland is based on the 2014 novel by Newfoundland and Labrador writer Michael Crummey. Trailer via Game Theory Films.

Director Christian Sparkes takes a slow and measured approach to Crummey’s story, laying out the novel’s major plot points and ladling a healthy dose of Newfoundland’s extraordinary landscape overtop like a thick drizzle of beauty.

After mechanization removes him from his post at the lighthouse, Moses spends his days chopping wood, fishing for cod and playing the occasional game of chess with his neighbour. It’s not a bad life, but change is coming. And like any curmudgeon worth their salt, Moses is having none of it.

As Moses is variously abused and threatened by his neighbours (anonymous notes with letters cut from magazines make a regular appearance on his doorstep), the stakes climb perilously higher. But the man and the land will not be so easily parted. Even as everyone else sets sail for the mainland, Moses finds a way to remain, the last lone resident of the place. Or so he believes.

The story draws upon real events in Newfoundland history. There are sudden lurches of tragedy that come out of nowhere and smack one sideways. That’s the way of Canadian film. One moment it’s gentle hijinks, and the next, something unbelievably terrible takes place.

In between these two polarities, the narrative wanders about, dropping hints about what it took to transform Moses into the cranky old man he is. We learn about a long-ago trip to Toronto (stay the heck away from that place!) and a failed love affair with Queenie.

But the most pivotal experience in the life of young Moses was the death of his brother, who drowned while the pair were out fishing. Whether the young man meant to die or was simply the victim of a horrific accident is left purposely unclear.

Amidst the scraggly crags, the bracing beauty of rural life

The shades linger long in a place like Sweetland, where generations of the dead, buried in the cemetery that overlooks the town, function as reminders of both lives and love lost long ago. Ghosts make regular appearances. Jesse casually mentions his conversations with Moses’ dead brother, as if it was no big thing. With the entire town vamoosed, the place comes alive with eerie happenings.

Scant of plot but rich with atmosphere, the film whiles away its time, capturing the bracing beauty of the Atlantic coast and the craggy, scraggly windswept island. If you’re looking for action, this is probably not the film for you, but there are a great many pleasures to be gleaned in its homely trudging pace as Moses and Jesse putter about, taking time for naps in the long grass, and staring out at the endless expanse of the grey ocean.

So, what are we supposed to take from this tale of a place and its people? That Michael Crummey’s poetic evocations of rural places are as deserving of close, loving observation as more metropolitan settings.

Arriving in the wake of the passing of the great Alice Munro, Sweetland hits a little differently.

The foundational sadness of a time and place slowly fading into the gloaming is endemic to rural Canada. Anyone who came of age in this big, largely empty country will immediately recognize this quality.

The film combines the crepuscular gloom and humour in the soil of this odd country of ours into a hardy yet poignant offering. It’s a thing of harsh beauty.

Sweetland’ plays at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver until May 29.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Film

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