The Danish director and star of the Oscar-nominated 'A Royal Affair' reteam on this Nordic Western about a low-born military man determined to cultivate the wild Jutland heath against daunting odds.
While The Promised Land sounds more subdued than the original Danish title, Bastarden (The Bastard), there’s nothing tame or prosaic about Nikolaj Arcel’s brawny historical drama. Reuniting the director with Mads Mikkelsen after their compelling 2012 collaboration, A Royal Affair, the new film shows once again that period pieces can be vigorous, powerful and emotionally stirring, this one enriched by themes of class, racism, sexual abuse, labor exploitation and chosen families. It’s a handsome production that displays all the virtues of assured old-fashioned storytelling without a trace of stodge.
While Mikkelsen has carved out a solid career in international movies since turning heads as a charismatic Bond villain in Casino Royale, films from his native Denmark, like The Hunt, Another Round and this one, continue to show the actor’s range to best advantage. Playing the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a maid determined to elevate his status, he brings magnetic stoicism, imposing physicality and soulful introspection to a character who might have been at home in a John Ford saga.
Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen, who defied his humble roots by rising to the rank of captain and being decorated for his military service in mid-18th-century Denmark. A proud man with drive and ambition, he submits a proposal to cultivate the barren Jutland heath and start a settlement there, a potentially lucrative project dear to the King that has defeated many men before Ludvig.
The bean-counters at the Royal Treasury scoff at the idea of pouring more money into what they see as a lost cause. But Kahlen offers to finance the venture with his soldier’s pension, asking for a noble title and an estate with servants in return. Given that the bureaucrats see no chance of success, they agree, figuring they can keep the King happy with zero outlay.
With nothing but a horse, a tent, a pistol to protect himself from bandits and a few tools to hack away at the hard ground, which is believed to be nothing but sand and rocks covered in coarse heather, Ludvig sets up camp and weathers the harsh elements. Eventually, he finds soil, which can be mixed with clay from the seaside to grow potatoes, a crop he has imported from Germany.
But from the start, he makes a formidable enemy in Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the county judge who added the “De” to his name to make it sound more aristocratic. A brutal landowner who works his servants like animals and rapes any maid of his choosing, De Schinkel takes advantage of the remoteness from Copenhagen to disregard the monarchy and claim the territory as his own. When Ludvig stands up to him, insisting that it’s the King’s land, he impresses De Schinkel’s cousin Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who is being forced, due to her family’s financial straits, to marry Frederik.
De Schinkel makes it difficult for Ludvig to find the laborers necessary to prepare the land for planting. But a young pastor (Anton Eklund) brings him a runaway couple, Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), who have escaped De Schinkel’s cruelty; Ludvig agrees to provide them with work and shelter, despite the legal risk. He also strikes a deal to employ the outlaws living in the woods, including an orphaned young Roma girl, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), disparagingly referred to as a “darkling” and believed by the superstitious Danish peasants to bring bad luck.
Based on Ide Jessen’s 2020 historical novel The Captain and Ann Barbara, the script by Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen lays out the exposition with brisk efficiency and incisive character definition. The film draws us into the mounting challenges faced by Ludvig as De Schinkel and his cronies play increasingly dirty, enlisting a group of murderous thugs to help when Kahlen begins making progress. A heartless display of vindictiveness by the landowner at the harvest ball is horrifying in its barbarism, underscoring the petulant tyrant’s belief that he can make his own laws.
Alongside the escalating battle of wills between Kahlen and De Schinkel, the writers trace the delicate arc of Ludwig and Ann Barbara’s relationship, which starts out as master and housekeeper but evolves into a deeper alliance as circumstances erase the lines between them. The spirited Anmai Mus also adopts them as surrogate parents, slowly winning over Ludvig, which leads to tough choices when settlers sent by the King balk at her presence.
Collin shows real fire in the role of a woman who has endured degrading treatment and vowed never to submit to it again, while Mikkelsen brings solemn depths to a taciturn man whose plan to get ahead is obstructed almost at every turn. Even when responding with burning indignation to De Schinkel’s most unscrupulous tactics, Mikkelsen’s performance remains measured, with Ludvig’s emotions largely internalized to great effect.
Arcel directs with a sure hand that balances the poignant strain of an outsider family struggling to stay together with the treachery of an antagonist whose ruthlessness has no limits, yielding tense action just as Ludvig appears to have succeeded in his endeavors.
Elements that could have lurched into melodrama — Ludvig’s flickers of romance with Edel, for instance, which complicates his understanding with Ann Barbara — are reined in by the disciplined direction and strong ensemble, and even if the villainy at times risks becoming overripe, it makes the payback all the more satisfying. This is a big Nordic Western that maintains its gravitas throughout as reality constantly reminds Ludvig that hard work and honesty are not always rewarded.
Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk’s widescreen compositions give imposing weight to the rugged landscape; Jette Lehmann’s production design points up the contrast between the humble structures built on the desolate heath and the pompous grandeur of De Schinkel’s residence, Hald Manor; and Dan Romer’s robust orchestral score fuels the film’s epic sweep. The Promised Land is a terrific story driven by skillful writing and strong performances. There’s an art to bringing vitality and modernity to historical drama, and Arcel shows a firm grasp of it.
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