THE PROMISED LAND | Denmark, Germany, Sweden | 2023 | 127m | Danish
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Gustav Lindh, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Simon Bennebjerg
Directed By: Nikolaj Arcel
For all the strengths that make Nikolaj Arcel’s sixth feature such a richly satisfying historical drama, the most compelling may be the least surprising. That’s the old-school screen charisma that Mads Mikkelsen exudes in great abundance as a man whose taciturn nature and rugged fortitude are tested by nearly every conceivable hardship that can be dished out in 18th-century Denmark.
The film reunites Mikkelsen with Arcel, who previously directed him in A Royal Affair (TIFF ’12). The actor stars as Ludvig Kahlen, the illegitimate son of a maid and a nobleman, who defied his low status to succeed in Denmark’s military. Though many had already tried and failed to realize the hopes of King Frederik V for the wild heath of Jutland to be tamed and cultivated, Kahlen believes he has the necessary mettle to triumph over the inhospitable soil, roving thieves, and many other obstacles. His most formidable enemy proves to be Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the landowner who knows that any progress on the heath will cost him his power. For all his stoic self-reliance, Kahlen soon realizes he can’t succeed without allies such as Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), a worker who comes under his protection, and Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), de Schinkel’s cousin and very reluctant betrothed.
Arcel equips it all with a sense of sweep and swagger that evokes a John Ford western. And with Mikkelsen’s robust yet nuanced performance being matched by the whole of the cast, The Promised Land boasts a vitality that’s all too uncommon in such handsomely mounted period fare.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 5 out of 5
The Promised Land (or Bastarden in the original Danish) is a grand, sweeping historical epic full of stunning visuals and great filmmaking from director Nikolaj Arcel, but it is the performances of the cast, and notably Simon Bennebjerg as the film’s villain, that makes this a thrilling watch from start to finish.
For his latest film, director Nikolaj Arcel reunites with star Mads Mikkelsen after collaborating together on the critically acclaimed A Royal Affair. It’s another Danish historical epic that has a grand scale to it, making for a truly impeccably directed film from start to finish. From gorgeous cinematography, outstanding performances from the entire cast and a captivating story, it's an excellent film from Arcel that is bound to sweep audiences away on an adventure. It’s another sublime example of why foreign cinema should be embraced by audiences and to look past the one inch barrier, as this film has a terrific story that demands to be seen not only by audiences all over the world, but in a movie theatre.
Based on the bestselling Danish novel by Ida Jessen which is in turn inspired by the real life story of Ludvig Kahlen, the film follows Ludvig, a poor soldier back from the war looking for a new life. He takes up the King of Denmark’s call to cultivate the Jutland heath, a barren area of land, in hopes of achieving wealth and honor for himself. But in addition to the harsh climate and barren environment of the Jutland heath, Ludvig must also deal with the dangerous nomads who live in the woods surrounding the heath and the sinister landowner who refuses to give up his claim to the heath despite the king’s orders.
At the centre of The Promised Land is a rich story full of danger, romance, and survival, ensuring that there is not a second of wasted screen time in the film. The story of Ludvig Kahlen is made for the big screen: it’s dramatic, epic and enthralling with exciting moments, moments that will have audiences gasping and holding their breath in fear, and leaving the theatre feeling enriched by the story. The screenplay does a wonderful job of capturing all the different forces at play that shaped Ludvig’s struggle for survival on the heath, while showcasing the internal conflict within Ludvig and ensuring it is never for a second lost amongst all the various plot points of the story. It’s a strong screenplay, with it only slightly faltering at the film’s conclusion as there are a few false endings. Twice during the film’s final act, it felt like we were at the conclusion of the film’s story, only for the film to move forward in time and continue on again. It’s not to the film’s detriment, as the point where the film ends Ludvig’s story is emotionally resonant given everything the audience has gone through with him, but the writing could have been tighter to prevent the audience from being ready to leave the story earlier than required.
There is a haunting feeling while watching The Promised Land that Arcel is able to capture on screen, and it is unlike many other films this year. The cinematography has a grand and epic scale to it, with sweeping shots of the Jutland heath where Ludvig Kahlen actually lived, worked the land and built his house, giving the film a grounding realism to the visuals of the film that you will get lost in. It’s only amplified by the seamless CGI that removes modern structures from the background of the shots, transporting audiences back to Denmark in 1755. Dan Romer’s musical score bolsters the visual experience on screen with an excellent musical score that captures the struggle faced by Ludvig to build his life while cultivating the land and the emotion of this truly riveting story. Under the talented direction of Arcel, the film is a technical wonder that creates an all encompassing watch that is a throwback to Hollywood classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, delivering a cinematic experience that we have not had in a long time.
As with every role he takes on, Mikkelsen is nothing short of spectacular as Ludvig Kahlen with a stoic and quiet performance. There is an intensity that Mikkelsen portrays in Ludvig that instills the film with an energy that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it is the supporting cast that truly steals the show. Melina Hagberg is stunning as Anmai Mus, the young girl that Ludvig welcomes into his home. For an actress of her age, it is amazing how strong her performance is as she not only steals many of her scenes from Mikkelsen, but her spirited fierceness that she brings to Anmai breathes life into the film. With a deadly seriousness in one scene and an infectious humorous spirit in the next, Hagberg delivers a dazzling performance that makes her one actress to watch over the coming years. Amanda Collin has wonderful onscreen chemistry with both Mikkelsen and Hagberg, in addition to a beautiful turn as the woman that captures not only the heart of Ludvig but also of Anmai, helping to round out the cast of main characters in the film.
Though, the standout performance of the film comes from Simon Bennebjerg as the villainous landowner Frederik de Schinkel. From the second he appears on screen, Bennebjerg oozes a terrifying energy that makes him one of the most ruthless and formidable villains of the entire year. Chilling, unpredictable and disturbing, Bennebjerg adds the stakes to this film as he makes it his mission to destroy Mikkelsen’s Ludvig at all costs to assert his dominance and control over the Jutland heath. Even weeks after seeing The Promised Land, thinking about Bennebjerg’s unhinged performance still sends a chill down my spine, and hopefully it will act as a stepping stone to larger and more prominent roles for him as he is a sensational actor.
From the second The Promised Land begins, you are immediately immersed in Nikolaj Arcel’s latest film, making it near Impossible to turn your attention away from the screen as Ida Jessen’s bestseller comes to life. From beautiful cinematography, a fascinating story and wonderful performances from the entire cast led by the always excellent Mads Mikkelsen and featuring a brilliant and terrifying turn from Simon Bennebjerg, The Promised Land is a throwback to the historical epics of decades long ago that demands to be seen.