They don’t make them like this any more, except when they do. Bastarden (disappointingly renamed The Promised Land in English) is a historical epic out of Denmark that has all the virtues of a midday movie remembered from childhood, the kind of thing you watched when your mother kept you home with a bad cold: a setting sometime in the olden days, a lawless frontier, sword fights and a gaggle of delectably evil baddies. Those seamy aristocrats and their henchmen, given to torturing, murdering and raping their oppressed tenants, are just lining up to have the tables turned, giving them a rich dose of their own torturing, murdering medicine. Hooray!
Better still, The Promised Land has one element those midday movies missed, simply because of the time they were made: Mads Mikkelsen. Mads as Ludwig Kahlen, soldier settler in some of the most inhospitable country on Earth, is at his staunch, heroic, conflicted and deeply flawed best. What he needs is the love of a good woman – someone who might have been played in another time and place by Olivia de Havilland – but, of course, he is much too staunch and flawed to realize it.
Playing in competition in Venice, Nikolaj Arcel’s film tells a roughly true story. The year is 1755. A low-born army captain resolves to seek honor and the king’s favor by settling the wild heath of Jutland, turning it bit-by-bit into arable land that will bring more settlers to the area and develop it as a productive, prosperous and satisfactorily tax-paying territory of the kingdom. The courtiers who administer the Royal Treasury sneer at this upstart and his crackpot idea; there have been other attempts to subdue the heathland, currently a rat run for outlaws and wild animals, but they have concluded it is impossible. Besides, this man Kahlen’s uniform looks a bit moth-eaten. Who does he think he is?
Undeterred, Ludwig sets off for Jutland, where he befriends the local priest Anton (Gustav Lindh) and tries to recruit workers. Nobody wants to go to work in the wasteland. Eventually, Anton turns up Johannes and Ann Barbara, two servants on the run from their former master. It is illegal to employ runaways and Ludwig generally sets a great deal of store by rules, but he has little choice. Even when he discovers that the master they have escaped is his aristocratic neighbor Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the most powerful and spectacularly ruthless man in the province, he resolves to keep them hidden and – quite literally – plough on.
What gives him such determination is a lifetime of feeling slighted. He is the illegitimate son of a maid and her master. Now his eye is fixed on a glittering prize he is determined will eventually be his: an estate and a title. When he briefly meets De Schinkel’s cousin Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp) – an elegant, cultivated woman who is being steered forcefully into marrying her vile cousin to save her own family’s finances – his eye is fixed on her too. By his own admission, he has barely spoken to a woman in his life, but he knows quality when he sees it.
What gives this story power – and makes it more than just another swashbuckler with extra blood and an unusual amount of information about how to grow potatoes – is that we know from the very beginning that Ludwig has set himself goals that are fatally wrong-headed. He is decent, yes. He is hard-working – but in his efforts to better himself, he will all but destroy every good thing in his life: this is his tragedy.
Stalwart Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) works tirelessly by his side, but he takes it for granted; he has another kind of marriage in mind. A little orphan girl Anmai Mus (Hagberg Melina) pierces his hard carapace of military discipline, but you can see Mikkelsen setting his chin against this unwanted, inconvenient feeling of paternal love. It could get in the way of his plans. Perhaps he doesn’t even recognize it.
What Arcel and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen have made here, wound between the sword-fights, the sex and the spring harvests, is thus a classic Scandinavian drama about human frailty It is also a deep-etched picture of a vicious past where the poor had no redress against the rich, where outsiders like Anmai were seen as dangerous, even demonic and persecuted accordingly and where those with power could decide what the law was. None of which, of course, is entirely past. After two heady hours, you feel like taking out a sword yourself.
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