After The Royal Affair, which gave us Mads Mikkelsen and a then-unknown Alicia Vikander in a tumultuous Rococo-era court romance, Danish writer-director Nikolaj Arcel goes back to the 18th century for another story of power struggles and romance in The Promised Land (Bastarden). In this gorgeously lensed adaptation of a novel by Ida Jessen, Mikkelsen stars as Ludvig Kahlen, a former army captain who has decided he will be the one to finally tame the Jutland heath, a gigantic, barely fertile region that corresponds to roughly the western half of Denmark. Besides the elements, the almost penniless Kahlen has to brave the desire of a wealthy and extremely cruel local aristocrat to get the king to recognise his (invented) ownership over this hostile land.
Arcel again works his magic on a widescreen canvas, while Mikkelsen, fresh off his Indiana Jones shenanigans, proves once more he’s one of the world’s most charismatic actors — even, or perhaps especially, when he seems to be doing very little. The Promised Land premiered in competition in Venice, the first Danish film to do so in over two decades, and should see solid play beyond home turf after its fall festival run that also includes TIFF, San Sebastian and Busan.
Kahlen (Mikkelsen) manages to convince — but only barely — the Danish treasury in 1755 to allow him to use his own meagre army pension to try and cultivate a large stretch of heath. The only reason he succeeds is that it’s been the (offscreen) king’s biggest wish to see Jutland join civilisation instead of it remaining a windswept wilderness where only tough plants and bandits prosper.
In an extremely effective montage sequence consisting of just four shots, Arcel and Denmark’s top editor, Olivier Bugge Coutté, suggest what Kahlen is up against. We see Mikkelsen, in the centre of the screen, trying to extract soil samples with a rudimentary tool to decide the best place to cultivate his — for the longest time very mysterious — crops. It’s looks like its summer, winter, day, night, there’s rain and, well not shine but absence of rain. In less than 30 seconds, it is clear that Kahlen has his work cut out for him.
But he’s a stubborn character, so the cold, the dark and harsh conditions alone aren’t enough to provide some juicy drama. What could be worse? A human foe, of course, which he gets in the form of local aristocrat and county judge Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg, an utter delight you love to hate). To suggest how petty and insecure a man he his, he has everyone call him the more noble-sounding “de Schinkel” (his rank is a recent thing, due to his riches, influence and the hard work of his now-dead father).
The screenplay, by Arcel and one of the country’s top screenwriters, Anders Thomas Jensen (After the Wedding, The Duchess), thus casually underlines both the differences between the two male leads and their similarities. Indeed, Kahlen has negotiated with the Treasury that, should he succeed in cultivating crops on Jutland, he’ll get a title as well, which would elevate him to a new nobleman too. But he would have actually worked hard for it, unlike his foe, who has decided that the heath has to be recognised as his territory — instead of the King’s. This is the basis of the two men’s beef, though one that doesn’t entirely make sense in the film. Clearly, the territory would be worth more if only someone managed to domesticate it for harvesting (something no one has succeeded to do in hundreds of years), so Schinkel’s attempts to get rid of Kahlen only make sense up to a point, as he needs the man’s expertise and mystery crops to give the currently barren lands any value at all.
More plausible are the relationships that Kahlen finds himself having with the people who surround him, from a couple of maltreated runaway workers from Schinkel Manor (Amanda Collin, Morten Hee Andersen) to the young local priest (Gustav Lindh, sporting a wispy moustache meant to suggest that his character is at least an adult). Further complicating things are two women: a mysterious young girl of colour (Melina Hagberg) who many locals believe brings misfortune and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the daughter (Kristine Kujath Thorp) of a Norwegian aristocrat who is meant to marry Schinkel — sorry, I meant de Schinkel! — but who not-so-secretly pines for the less refined but nobler-of-mind Kahlen. While the various shifts in relationships in and around the household are themselves relatively predictable, Arcel and the actors flesh them out enough for them to carry the weight necessary to make them not only believable but actually give them an air of legend or myth.
Mikkelsen knows how to play these kind of noble-yet-gruff men in his sleep so it’s a testament to his dedication that it still doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself here. He’s mesmerising to watch, especially in the moments in which he does very little. His work contrasts beautifully with the intentionally more grandiose and mannered performance of Bennebjerg as his opponent, even if the screenplay lets him down in the characterisation department in The Promised Land‘s second half, when he descends into cruel madness and the threat of becoming a caricature looms large. It is up to the women to provide some counterbalance to all that testosterone and it is in their depiction that the film feels most modern. In historical epics of yesteryear, their roles would have been very two-dimensional, but here we get several finely grained portraits of women trying to survive in the harsh world of men, whether they are kind or cruel.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novel Kaptajnen og Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Gustav Lindh
Producer: Louise Vesth
Cinematography: Rasmus Videbæk
Editing: Olivier Bugge Coutté
Production design: Jette Lehmann
Costume design: Kicki Ilander
Music: Dan Romer
Sound: Claus Lynge, Hans Christian Kock
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments (Denmark), Zentropa Berlin (Germany), Zentropa Sweden (Sweden)
World Sales: TrustNordisk
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
In Danish, German
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