The Promised Land

More than a decade after 'A Royal Affair', Mads Mikkelsen and filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel have made another grand and gripping drama set in Denmark's past.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 19, 2024


The transfixing terrain of Mads Mikkelsen's face has been cast against formidably frosty and inhospitable climes before, weathering mirroring weathering. Sporting a piercing and determined glint in his eye, the Danish acting great has previously surveyed the Scandinavian landscape, too, seeing possibility where others spot peril. It was true in Arctic, in Valhalla Rising and now in The Promised Land: there's no stare as mesmerisingly resolute as his. When Ludvig Kahlen, Mikkelsen's latest character, insists that he can do what no one else has done — to begin with: settling the heath on the heather-covered Jutland moorland and building a colony for the king, a feat considered virtually impossible in the mid-18th century — doubting him isn't a possibility for anyone in the movie's audience.

The BAFTA-nominated Another Round star has danced in historical drama territory for his countryman director Nikolaj Arcel in the past as well, with the pair reteaming after 2012's Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair. A different king sits on the throne in this film, Frederick V instead of Christian VII; however, the regal shadow remains inescapable. This time, Mikkelsen and Arcel tell not of a doctor influencing a monarch and a country, but of a soldier aligning his quest for a better future with a sovereign's wish, and learning what it means to chase a dream only to realise that you need something less tangible. Kahlen's attempt to farm land considered barren is equally a battle against entitlement and arrogance thanks to his clash with Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg, Borgen), a cruel local magistrate who contends that the king's land is his own — and feels far enough away from Copenhagen for there not to be any consequences for his claim.

A survivalist story, an underdog tale, an eat-the-rich narrative, a fierce repudiation of ill-earned senses of superiority, a journey of discovery: they all fertilise this potent Nordic picture, as do all of the hallmarks of a western. Jutland provides the plains. Kahlen and de Schinkel tussle over their conquering — one with what's best for the community in mind, the other only seeking their own power and glory. Based on Ida Jessen's 2020 book The Captain and Ann Barbara, The Promised Land isn't so simplistic as to make Kahlen the portrait of selflessness. Indeed, this isn't a naive film for a second. Instead, even with renown also on the line for its protagonist, it spies the vast chasm between the illegitimate son of a landowner and a servant who toiled in the military for 25 years to receive the title of captain and is now willing to keep scrapping to secure his lot in life, and the born-to-money and -means pomposity lorded over everyone in reach by someone that knows nothing of hard work, struggle and duty, and only of selfishly getting their own way. (Bastarden aka The Bastard is the movie's original Danish-language moniker.)

The year is 1755 when Kahlen petitions Frederick V for the right to make what he can of the moors, a request only granted by the royal underlings because they think that the task is unattainable but it'll appease the king that an effort is being made. On the land itself, doubt also reigns supreme. Only the resident clergyman (Gustav Lindh, The Northman) shows any faith in Kahlen's mission. Finding workers to assist is also virtually impossible due to de Schinkel, who has the county cloaked in fear and its peasants indentured on his own turf. It's illegal for anyone to take on those who have fled the tyrant, but in the married Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen, Carmen Curlers) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin, Raised by Wolves), Kahlen takes a chance anyway. While it's also forbidden to enlist the Romani people, who first send the young Anmai Mus (debutant Melina Hagberg) to get pilfering on Kahlen's patch, that's another gambit soon made.

Arcel has much to dig through in Anders Thomas Jensen's latest screenplay to star Mikkelsen — see also: Flickering Lights, Adam's Apples, After the Wedding, The Salvation, Men & Chicken and Riders of Justice — especially as de Schinkel keeps throwing his weight around as egotistical manchildren do, and as the ways in which exploitation, classism and racism shape the societal status quo push to the fore.  With Kahlen, including as he gets caught between his new nemesis and the latter's Norwegian cousin Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp, Sick of Myself), the filmmaker makes a crucial storytelling choice, though: rarely peering far away from either Mikkelsen or the Danish scenery. Westerns fix their eyes on faces and frontiers because they're each sights that can unfurl an entire history in a mere look; in this feature's majestic imagery, which spans sweeping vistas and soulful close-ups alike, nothing says more than intently scrutinising its star and his surroundings.

As classical as The Promised Land feels in an old-school, they-don't-often-make-them-like-this-anymore fashion — and with the route there proving more of a surprise than the destination as well — there's a slipperiness to Mikkelsen's involvement, too, thanks to a career spent playing everything from Bond antagonists and Hannibal Lecter to The Hunt's persecuted teacher. Even in a film with a clear villain that isn't his character, he isn't in the business of painting solely in black and white. In fact, nor should he when Kahlen can be stubborn, stern, beyond stoic, and quick to cast others aside in the name of settling the hearth and taking potato farming nearly as seriously as in The Martian at almost any cost. Absolutely nothing is formulaic about the feeling and complexity that Mikkelsen brings to a role, including this, one of his best performances — and again and again, he gives the screen the epitome of what a layered and complicated portrayal should be.

With Collin and scene-stealing first-timer Hagberg especially, The Promised Land's lead has excellent on-screen company. In smaller but no less pivotal parts, each conveys perseverance and strength to match Kahlen's, as tinted with the added weight of being women, peasants and Romani in a time and place with no care for any of the above. This film's main trio, its makeshift family, inhabit an existence where little sprouts for those beyond the one percent that isn't tended to fastidiously, furiously and like their very being depended upon it. Among its many highlights, stepping reflecting the present bears plenty of fruit for this grand and gripping picture.


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