Who knew a historical epic about mid-18th-century potato farming in Denmark would be packed with so much blood, determination, and greed?
The Promised Land offers much more drama and villainy than its bland English-language title suggests with Denmark’s No. 1 acting export Mads Mikkelsen in the lead. Titled Bastarden, aka The Bastard in its native language, the original title is an appropriate moniker for Mikkelsen’s stoic Ludvig Kahlen, aptly describing him in both body and spirit.
Born fatherless to a servant mother, Kahlen has defied all odds and worked his way up Denmark’s military to earn the rank of Captain. A proud and capable man, Kahlen makes a proposal to the Royal Treasury: he will cultivate the barren plains of Jutland and start a settlement on the land, in exchange for a noble title and servants, to fulfill the King’s so-far futile wish to expand his reach there.
Thought of as a laughable lost cause, Kahlen is granted permission. With nothing but his trusty horse, a tent, and some tools, he sets off into Jutland, furtively hacking away at the sandy, heather-covered soil in his quest to find adequate growing conditions for his imported crop: potatoes.
Almost immediately, Kahlen makes an enemy of Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the ruthlessly vindictive local county judge who has dismissed the King’s wishes. Power-hungry and an all-around bad guy, De Schnikel’s obsession with Kahlen’s failure propels both men into a stand-off with lives, ambition, and potatoes on the line. The friendly local pastor (Anton Eklund), De Schinkel’s runaway servant couple Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), and Roma girl Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg) – shunned as a “darkling” for her skin colour – are drawn into Kahlen’s fold on the heath.
They certainly don’t make historical epics like they used to. The Promised Land feels like it is of another time, when costume dramas flourished and gladiators ruled the big screen. A throwback epic in the very best way, director Nikolaj Arcel tells a truly compelling story with superlative pacing to deliver a comprehensive tale that feels much bigger than its 127-minute runtime.
Based on the historical novel “The Captain and Ann Barbara” by Ide Jessen, Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen (writer of the excellent Riders of Justice, Men & Chicken, and Adam’s Apples, just to name a few) have plenty of vibrant and exciting material to work with. A true Danish Western with Mikkelsen on horseback, the story is one of villainy as De Schinkel and his thugs hatch devious and dirty plots to destroy the progress Kahlen has begun to make. Arcel guides the sweeping story with measured skill.
Mikkelsen is utterly sublime as Kahlen, delivering another stand-out performance in a career built on excellent performances. The actor’s handsomely rugged face can convey so much with just a look, whether he’s playing a hungry Hannibal Lecter, 007 villain Le Chiffre, or the longingly romantic lead in A Royal Affair (also directed by Arcel). A real historical figure, not much is known about Kahlen with Mikkelsen superbly taking what the script is giving and imbuing him with energy and life. Truly one of the finest actors working today, Mikkelsen continues to transform in front of our eyes as he embodies yet another memorable character.
Where Mikkelsen’s face has cheekbones that can cut glass, Bennebjerg is the opposite. Round-cheeked and youthful, Bennebjerg’s cruelty as De Schinkel is almost comical compared to the stoic and weathered Kahlen, played as a spoiled brat whose viciousness seemingly knows no bounds when he doesn’t get his way. While at times Bennebjerg’s performance feels almost over-the-top, Arcel manages to reign the actor in without veering too far into cartoon territory. Bennebjerg’s De Schinkel is cut from the same cloth as another memorable foe, Alan Rickman’s Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to great success.
But the film owes its emotional core to supporting cast members Collin, Hagberg and Eklund. They are the ones who draw the stolid Kahlen out of his shell, breathing more life into his solitary Jutland existence and unwavering determination. Each of the film’s characters is flawed in their own ways and it is this transformation upon realization that packs the biggest punch.
Equally as important to the grand success of The Promised Land is the landscape. Filmed mostly in the Czech Republic, cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk and Jette Lehmann’s production design is marvellous. Evoking memories of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, the vast expanses and wooden structures of the heath make it clear why Kahlen is both determined to settle here and enamoured with the land itself. Epic, sweeping vistas that move from buzzing, warm spring to hard, cold winter are mesmerizing to behold on screen.
Built on strong performances and full of energy, The Promised Land is a rousing historical epic that begs to be seen on the largest screen possible.