The film Sweetland, directed by Christian Sparkes, premiered at the Atlantic International Film Festival (AIFF) on Sept. 15, 2023.
Sweetland focuses on Moses Sweetland (Mark Lewis Jones), who lives on an isolated island in Newfoundland and Labrador. With the population of the island dwindling, the government has offered a deal to the residents: they can take a sum of money and other benefits in exchange for their moving to a more populated part of the province. The catch is that all residents of the island must agree in order to receive the resettlement package.
The film follows Sweetland as he desperately clings to the hope of remaining where he has called home his entire life.
I’d read the novel of the same name, which the film is based on, a few months prior to seeing the film.
I went in cautiously optimistic.
The book’s greatest weakness and greatest strength is the way it dawdles, lingers and stretches ordinary parts of life into pages and pages of nothing.
At times the book was boring and my interest faded. But the near-boredom is also the selling point of the novel. Spending time with Sweetland as he navigates his painfully ordinary days, and getting a close look into his relationships allows us to understand his reactions to later events in the book. We understand why he is the way he is: rude, difficult and dry, but also deeply loving.
I left the theatre pleasantly surprised by the film. The stunning views of the ocean, phenomenal acting by Lewis Jones and loyalty to the book’s heartbreaking story meant the movie remained true to the book.
“We focused on the quite literal A-plot of the film,” said director Christian Sparkes in a Q-and-A that followed the premiere. “We made this film for a little over a million dollars, and there’s only so many shoot days that that allows you.”
Though Sparkes expressed a certain amount of frustration in having to condense the film, I think that in some ways, cutting out some of the novel worked in the film’s favour.
Although we didn’t get as deep a look at Sweetland’s relationships and history—as Sparkes put it, “a bunch of threads that give us clearer insight into [Sweetland’s] eternal life”—the film ushered the story by quicker, cutting out the dull scenes that bogged down the book.
That being said, the film also recognized the importance of slowing down.
“When you’re living in these places, there’s a very slow, languid pace of life that was integral to capture in order to make this film really sing,” said Sparkes.
He also spoke of his philosophy of capturing the deeply emotional scenes.
“It would be very easy to have the camera in the water, potentially splashing about, getting a thousand cuts in there, to try and manufacture some emotion and panic. But like a lot of the language in the film, we decided to just stay back, shoot things in tableau, and let them unfold naturally. Because that is, in a lot of ways, what Newfoundland feels like.”
Contrasting the film and the book allows us to examine two different ways of telling stories. Like all art, what works best is subjective.
Perhaps Sparkes put it best, saying, “There’s a fine line between being entertained and being bored.”
And that line differs for all of us.