The Promised Land
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Written by Nikolaj Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen, based on the novel The Captain and Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin and Simon Bennebjerg
Classification N/A; 127 minutes
Opens in Toronto and Vancouver Feb. 9, other cities Feb. 16
Mads Mikkelsen has the rugged, dirt-under-the-fingernails gravitas that suggests he could survive the harshest of climates. Perhaps this is simply a perception born from the Danish actor’s choice of productions, whether they require surviving the tundra in 2018′s Arctic or the American West of 2014′s The Salvation. But whether roles make the man or vice-versa, Mikkelsen is someone who you want to be standing next to when the storm arrives.
All of which makes The Promised Land a perfect fit for the star survivor. An historical epic that is as grand as it is brutal, the new film from regular Mikkelsen collaborators Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) and Anders Thomas Jensen (Riders of Justice) casts the hard-eyed actor as Captain Ludvig Kahlen, an impoverished army veteran who obtains royal permission to farm a desolate piece of land in 1700s Denmark.
After throwing himself into the work – nobody gets their hands muddy quite like Mikkelsen – Kahlen starts to see slow but impressive success with his potato crop. That is until he catches the eye of the villainous Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the local judge and nearby landowner who is viciously building a monopoly over the region.
Adapted from Ida Jessen’s novel The Captain and Ann Barbara, The Promised Land boasts a more thematically appropriate title in its native Denmark: Bastarden. Arcel and Jensen have created a callous-pocked film whose cold heart grows only after immense trials and tribulations. It is as emotionally and narratively punishing as it is beautiful, the sweeping vistas of rural Denmark offering an open-skied escape from the struggles on the ground below.
Kahlen, while positioned as the film’s hero, is a difficult, obstinate man who doesn’t think twice about embracing the hard decision, whether that’s denying himself physical relief or pulling the trigger on an anonymous enemy. Even when the story introduces a love interest in his widowed servant Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and a potential child to care for in the young Romani orphan-slash-thief Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), Kahlen blinds himself to anything but his goal of taming the land.
It is only after de Schinkel escalates his campaign of cruelty – to an almost cartoonish level of moustache-twirling sadism – that Kahlen begins to let emotion creep into his decision-making.
Ultimately, The Promised Land is a testament to not only the resilience of Denmark’s agricultural homesteaders – it wouldn’t be a surprise if the movie was, in fact, a stealth ad for the country’s potato industrial complex – but also to the fierce power of Mikkelsen’s presence. Survival of the fittest, indeed.