The Promised Land – movie review

Based on a true story and set in Denmark in the mid 1700s, The Promised Land reunites star Mads Mikkelsen with director Nikolaj Arcel (who directed him in 2012’s A Royal Affair).

Impoverished former soldier Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) lives on his meagre army pension. But he has a grand dream and sets out to tame the wild and uninhabitable Jutland moorlands and heaths in order to establish a colony there. He hopes his successful endeavour will ultimately reward him with the noble title that has been denied him due to the circumstances of his birth as an illegitimate son of a noble. He gains the reluctant approval of the Royal Treasury (who represent the louche King Frederick V) as they believe that he will ultimately fail.

Kahlen plans to plant potatoes, a hardy vegetable he has brought from Germany, that can endure the harshest conditions. But he not only has to battle the elements, the soil where nothing can grow, wolves, thieves but he comes into conflict with the nasty Frederick De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg, from TV series Borgen), a petty and vindictive local magistrate who owns the land adjacent to the heath and believes he is entitled to Kahlen’s land as well. He employs underhanded and devious, at times brutal and violent, methods to drive Kahlen from his land.

Kahlen receives help from a young novice priest Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh, from The Northman) and eventually Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin, from TV series Raised By Wolves) and her husband Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen, from the historical drama Margrete: Queen Of The North), two tenant farmers who have fled De Schinkel’s cruel and controlling ways. But this act also puts him in jeopardy with a local law, of which De Schinkel is the local representative. But the taciturn Kahlen builds a small and loyal “family” around him that also includes young Romany orphan Anmai Mus (newcomer Melina Hagberg in her film debut). De Schinkel is interested in marrying his cousin Edel (Kristine Kujath (from Sick of Myself) but she is repulsed by his boorish behaviour.

This melodramatic historical drama has been adapted from the 2020 book The Captain And Ann Barbara, written by Ida Jenssen, and Arcel’s script takes some liberties for dramatic effect. It plays out like some sort of Danish take on the classic western drama with a landowner standing up against a bully in a harsh land. The Promised Land deals with themes of politics, violence, family, ambition, power, corruption, revenge and retribution. This is a relentlessly bleak film and Arcel gives audiences little respite. He gives the material an epic sweep. The film is crisply and beautifully shot by cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek (A Royal Affair), whose widescreen lensing gives us a strong sense of place as he captures the desolate, windswept landscapes and harsh vistas of this wasteland.

Performances are strong across the board. Mikkelsen is superb and brings a gruff, stoic quality and steely determination to his role as the obsessive and indefatigable anti-hero Kahlen. The sadistic and degenerate De Schinkel is one of the more despicable screen villains we’ve seen for a long time, and Bennebjerg plays him without any redeeming qualities whatsoever, stripping him of any sense of decency or humanity. Hagberg lends an emotional heft to the tale with her soulful performance.

The Promised Land is another stunning example of the fine cinema produced in Scandinavia. And well worth catching on the big screen.

Greg King

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