The Promised Land (2023, dir. Nikolaj Arcel)

by | Feb 13, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 127 mins

UK Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

UK Release Date: 16 February 2024

WHO’S IN THE PROMISED LAND?

Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Melina Hagberg, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Gustav Lindh, Morten Hee Andersen, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Magnus Krepper, Søren Malling, Morten Burian, Jacob Lohmann, Olaf Højgaard, Felix Kramer

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Nikolaj Arcel (director, writer), Anders Thomas Jensen (writer), Louise Vesth (producer), Dan Romer (composer), Rasmus Videbæk (cinematographer), Olivier Bugge Coutté (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

An 18th century Danish officer (Mikkelsen) runs into complications whilst building on uninhabitable land…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE PROMISED LAND?

Last year, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer broke box office records, gained universal acclaim from critics and audiences, and is now firmly on the path to sweep many of the big awards on Oscar night, including Best Picture. All of that, incidentally, for a three-hour historical film made up almost entirely of people talking in small rooms about theoretical physics, which on paper sounds utterly tedious but on the screen is some of the most invigorating stuff you’ve ever seen in a modern blockbuster.

Conversely, director Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land is a far tougher sell. It too is a historical epic, spoken primarily in Danish (with bits of German and Scandinavian thrown in there), with its plot focused heavily on agriculture and diplomatic land disputes. However, much like Oppenheimer – albeit not quite on the same level of quality – the film manages to be a sweeping and dramatically engaging epic that feels old-fashioned in the most interesting of ways.

Set in 18th century Denmark, The Promised Land follows the impoverished Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), a man of humble origins but seeks wealth and nobility, to where he acts as though he has more power than he actually does. He soon receives permission from the Royal Danish Court to build and cultivate property on the Jutland heath, which is infamously barren and thus unable to sustain significant plant life. Nevertheless, Kahlen is determined to achieve the near-impossible, with help from former serf farmer Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and his wife Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), as well as Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a young Romani Traveller who falls into the captain’s care.

However, Kahlen’s biggest challenge – aside from the harsh weather and initial lack of manpower – comes in the form of Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a wealthy and corrupt magistrate who believes that he owns the land that Kahlen is cultivating, even though it in fact belongs to the King of Denmark. In petulant response, de Schinkel sets out to make Kahlen’s life a living hell, from blocking vital resources to intimidating those who come to help the captain, all while his reluctant betrothed Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp, the star of last year’s Norwegian satire Sick of Myself) eyes Kahlen as a potential suitor once he gets his official titles.

For all of its mature and even complex themes of farming, status, power and even racism, The Promised Land, which Arcel and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen adapt from Ida Jessen’s novel The Captain and Ann Barbara, is at its centre a rather simple narrative. It’s the classic hero’s journey structure, wherein the protagonist sets out to achieve an unlikely goal against significant odds, faces a number of worthy adversaries, and ultimately evolves as a person through meaningful relationships developed along the way. Joseph Campbell would certainly be proud of how closely this film sticks to his reliable template, though Arcel is careful to keep the drama surrounding it just as absorbing, particularly with the heartfelt surrogate family unit that is formed between the book’s titular captain and Ann Barbara, and their mischievous young Romani ward Anmai Mus. Enough time is dedicated to their familial development to where you can see exactly how and why they function well together, and it eventually reaches a point where you may even shed one or two tears from certain developments in their collective story.

On the opposite end, there is this great villain who is everything you’d expect an antagonist to be in an old-fashioned historical epic like this. Loathsome from his very first appearance, Simon Bennebjerg’s de Schinkel is all sorts of over-the-top evil: he’s pompous, arrogant, sadistic (at one point, he boils an escaped servant to death in front of party guests) and, most of all, an entitled little git that you just can’t wait to see get his comeuppance. Beyond the fact that Bennebjerg is having a blast in the role, which in an alternate universe I could see someone like Matt Smith inhabiting with his own quirky acting style (it helps that both actors look fairly similar), it’s the kind of boo-hiss villain that is written to be so hateable that it borders on cartoon territory. However, the sinister edge that he has, not to mention the fact that he will just brutally murder someone out of nowhere just to spite someone else, does make him a legitimately intimidating threat that ultimately creates one of the more memorable all-out villains in recent memory.

The inclusion of such a formidable antagonist, opposite Mads Mikkelsen’s protagonist whose own morals are at first arguably murkier than even the villain’s, does once again make The Promised Land something of a classic crowd-pleaser. These character types are just some of the many hallmarks you would find in a historical epic from the mid-20th century like Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago, as is Arcel’s own David Lean-esque filmmaking that captures the vast scope of this barren landscape with striking and never-ending beauty. You can feel the classicism in the cinematography, production design and, of course, the writing, all of which tell a story that most can easily follow along with, even when the pacing starts to falter as it reaches a somewhat drawn-out conclusion. Even then, though, Arcel manages to combine simple storytelling with noble themes and sinister violence with such a profound grasp of what an audience wants to see on the screen, that you’re still emotionally invested in where things will eventually go.

So if, like Oppenheimer with its lengthy talk of theoretical science, an agriculturally-themed historical drama from Denmark doesn’t sound immediately appealing, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how engaged you’ll be by mundane crop development in this film.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Promised Land is an impressive historical epic that plants a simple storytelling structure at its agriculturally-themed centre, including a heartfelt hero’s journey and a fantastic villain, with filmmaking that matches the classical ambitions of David Lean, even when its pacing starts to falter towards the end.

Four of of five stars

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