The Promised Land Review

Connie Queline

The Promised Land Review

Mads Mikkelsen and Amanda Collin are excellent in director Nikolaj Arcel’s kick-ass historical epic, which ranks with the best in recent memory.

PLOT: In 18th century Denmark, Captain Ludvig Kahlen – a proud, ambitious, but impoverished war hero — sets out to tame a vast, uninhabitable land on which seemingly nothing can grow. He seeks to start farming crops, build a colony in the name of the King, and gain a noble title for himself. This beautiful but forbidding area also happens to be under the rule of the merciless Frederik De Schinkel, a preening nobleman who realizes the threat Kahlen represents to his power.

REVIEW: You have heard the cliche “they don’t make them like they used to” countless times, but it fits perfectly when reviewing The Promised Land. An epic melodrama that combines elements of survival thrillers, westerns, period melodramas, and historical drama, The Promised Land is a stunning and stark look at one man’s quest to tame the harsh wilderness of the barren northern territory of Denmark while also facing off against a ruthless tyrant who has claimed the land for himself. This brutal film is hard to watch while anchored by Mads Mikkelsen’s and Amanda Collin’s performances, which elevate it to amongst some of the best survival dramas since The Revenant. The Promised Land is a triumph from director Nikolaj Arcel that recalls his work on 2012’s A Royal Affair and allows you to forget 2017’s The Dark Tower. Those dissuaded by subtitled films should do themselves a favor and give this stunning film a chance.

Set in 1755, The Promised Land (titled The Bastard in Denmark) opens with Captain Ludwig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) requesting permission from the Royal Court of Denmark to cultivate the Jutland. While the King has long desired the barren wilderness to be turned into habitable land, everyone has failed. Kahlen offers to use his own money and wants a noble title should he succeed. Assuming failure, the Court agrees. Kahlen, a man of few words and even fewer emotional reactions travels north to find the Jutland populated by bands of wild thieves. The rest is under the control of Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a ruthless magistrate who is also the judge and master of all the tenant farmers (aka slaves) in the region. When Kahlen arrives under the auspices of the King, de Schinkel is enraged and will do anything to stop him. The early parts of The Promised Land focus on Kahlen working the fields silently, a Clint Eastwood-esque farmer, and finding little success. Kahlen continues to push de Schinkel the wrong way as he employs Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) and his wife, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), escaped tenant farmers in hiding.

As Kahlen struggles to till the unfriendly soil and brave the elements in the far north of Europe, he befriends Ann Babara and a Romani child thief named Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg). With each success he finds in converting the heath, Kahlen angers de Schinkel, who finds any method to stop the newcomer, ranging from hiring murderers to striking fear into the Romani workforce to undermining Kahlen’s reputation. All the while, Kahlen is looked upon favorably by de Schinkel’s cousin and fiance, Edel Helene (Kristine Kuhatg Thorp). As the film progresses, every conceivable roadblock falls in Kahlen’s path, including freezing weather, murdered settlers, and suspicion and fear that the dark-skinned Anmai Mus is a bad luck omen. Through it all, Mads Mikkelsen plays Ludwig Kahlen as an even-keeled soldier who rarely shows emotion, but even he has a breaking point when presented with torture and humiliation. There are shocking moments in this story that had precedence in the historical record, but that does not make them any less hard to watch.

Mads Mikkelsen is often cast as the villain in Hollywood projects, but The Promised Land is the latest in a career of stellar performances from the actor. Mikkelsen, speaking in his native tongue, rarely raises his voice above a whisper. Kahlen is a formidable character, but even he has a breaking point. Simon Bennebjerg is excellent as the smarmy de Schinkel, who cares more about his wealth and power than how he is perceived and becomes one of cinema’s most vile antagonists. I hated de Schinkel throughout the movie and rooted for his inevitable comeuppance. Amanda Collin, who was recently fantastic in Ridley Scott’s Max series Raised By Wolves, is equally good as Ann Barbara, the tenant farmer who endures as much as Kahlen but seeks her revenge more directly. This movie has a simultaneously happy and bittersweet ending and carries a heavy toll with all that happens in the two hours that preceded it.

The Promised Land review

Written by Nikolaj Arcel alongside Anders Thomas Jensen, The Promised Land is based on the novel The Captain and Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen. A fictionalized tale rooted in Danish history, this film chronicles a very specific historical era that I knew nothing about until I saw this movie. Thanks to cinematographer Rasmus Vidabaek, it is filmed in a natural style that captures the stark beauty and harsh terrain of the Danish Jutland. The score by Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild) accentuates the lush period elements of the story in contrast to the less-than-ideal living conditions. Arcel takes a story told during a period of powdered wigs and thrusts it into a survivalist narrative that has no use for make-up or expensive clothing. Arcel, who helmed the vastly different A Royal Affair, has a keen eye for seeing the ugliness of this story alongside the beauty of it. Make no mistake, The Promised Land is a tough watch but a very rewarding one.

Nikolaj Arcel’s first film in six years after the box office bomb that was The Dark Tower is a masterful return to form for the filmmaker. Telling a story that few outside of Denmark may be familiar with, The Promised Land is a beautiful and terrifying story that showcases Mads Mikkelsen’s latest exceptional performance. This is a film that has the scope of a big-budget film with the sensibility of an independent movie. Blending melodrama with the horrors of the cold and wild northern terrain of Europe, The Promised Land is a fantastic film that will require patience and a strong stomach. If you are willing to invest in this tale, you will be rewarded with a solid throwback to the type of movie we rarely see anymore.

9

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