After his 2012 film A Royal Affair received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Danish writer-director Nikolaj Arcel did what probably seemed logical at the time: go to Hollywood. But like many directors before him who walked that same path, the results were less than ideal––his being 2017’s disastrous Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower. Six years later, Arcel returns to his home country and reunites with A Royal Affair star Mads Mikkelsen to make The Promised Land, a brutal, entertaining period piece and another showcase for Mikkelsen’s stone-faced magnetism.
Set in 1700s Denmark, the film tells the story of Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen), a poor veteran who intends to grow crops on the Jutland Heath. Opening title cards establish that no one has been able to “tame” the Heath for decades, but Kahlen and the King’s treasurers come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement. If Kahlen succeeds he will receive the nobility and status he strives for, while the King can stay happy knowing someone is out there trying to cultivate his precious land. When Kahlen arrives, he’s met with hostility from Frederik Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who owns most of the surrounding land and knows Kahlen’s plans would reduce his power over the people in the area if he succeeds.
Arcel directs with the same kind of handsome stoicism Mikkelsen has in spades. Long shots, usually from high angles, emphasize the flat, barren lands of the Heath, while interior scenes play out with unfussy shot-reverse set-ups. At the center of it all is Kahlen, who we learn is the son of a maid and her master, who most likely raped her. It explains his hard demeanor––he speaks in blunt, transactional terms and hides feelings behind a stern poker face. Mikkelsen can nail this kind of role in his sleep if he wanted to; luckily he does more than that here, his eyes doing all the talking once Schinkel’s sadistic attempts to break his will ramp up.
As for Schinkel: the introduction of his character as a monstrous, cartoonishly evil villain gives The Promised Land a campy quality that helps the more horrific aspects of the story go down easier. Played by Bennebjerg as a smarmy, punchable aristocrat, his only objectives are to stop Kahlen from growing crops on the Heath and trying to marry his cousin Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who despises him and tries to get with Kahlen instead. The epic-like quality to this storytelling and straightforward direction mean Arcel might not have intended for his film to be as absurd as it actually is. But when Schinkel gleefully boils a man or alive or, in a fit of anger, hurls a servant through a window, it’s hard to imagine the intent wasn’t supposed to be a bit ridiculous.
But that’s what prevents The Promised Land from turning into a stuffy period drama. Arcel doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the time period, in both people and environment, which gives his film an edge that keeps its story engaging. It’s the kind of movie for people like me, who can’t help enjoying choices like a celebratory montage after a successful potato harvest that includes a full-blown sex scene between Kahlen and his servant Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), who eventually becomes his true love. A different filmmaker might have failed to walk the tonal balance that Arcel does here, and he deserves some credit for pulling it off––even if it might have not been intentional. Those willing to accept The Promised Land for what it is will likely have a good time, as it’s a serviceable piece of entertainment elevated by a strong leading performance and a few deranged tricks up its sleeve.
The Promised Land screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Magnolia Pictures.