The year is 1755, the place—Jutland peninsula which begins in Denmark and ends in Germany, the man—captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen). In what seems like utter folly, he decides to make fertile soil out of a barren land. When the feudal overseers say no, he proposes to fund it himself, out of his own modest military pension. This is the beginning of The Promised Land, the newest offering by The Dark Tower director, Nikolaj Arcel. Rumor has it he wants the king to make him a nobleman and the context of social mobility shapes and steers Kahlen’s story from that point onwards. Against the protests of the county judge Frederik de Schinkel (a perfectly petulant Simon Bennebjerg), the captain wants to be the first to cultivate Jutland’s wild heath. A property feud between the two is fierce upmanship and, whenever the argument concerns convictions, it resembles a theological dispute about one’s own beliefs.
The Promised Land (even though the original Danish title reads The Bastard) is a Nordic western and a period film, based on author Ida Jessen’s famed Danish novel, “The Captain and Ann Barbara.” The runtime covers seasons, years, and decades, and in this scale, the film is most obviously an adaptation. But when it comes to characters and storytelling, a devoted, strong vision governs the relationships and messy power dynamics that override them. The captain’s stubbornness knows no limits and every obstacle must be overcome at the price of success: we see him toiling in rain and sun, day and night. An ascetic determination underscores his hardness and Mikkelsen does not allow a glimpse of doubt to cloud the judgment of his character.
Borderline cruel and selectively caring, his secret infatuation with the noble lady Edel (Sick of Myself’s Kristine Kujath Thorp), his initial disdain for a dark-skinned outlaw girl he fosters, or the inarticulate codependency developed with a worker-turned-lover, Ann Barbara. Even if the book’s title points out Ann Barbara as a crucial half of a protagonist duo, the film makes an unsung hero of her, keeping in mind the rather slim role of Amanda Collin here. At least until she rises up to deliver one of the very best, rewarding endings of a period film lately.
The film’s solidity, consistency of rhythm and character development owe everything to the adapted screenplay, co-written by Arcel and writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen whose scripts have, to a large extent, shaped the prestige of contemporary Danish cinema. Before teaming up with Arcel for The Dark Tower in 2017, Jensen worked on Susane Bier’s piercing melodramas, in addition to his own biting dark comedies. What Jensen brings to the table as a co-writer in adapting one of Nordic literature’s most notable contemporaries, is a cinematic enhancement and sharp characters, even in their shared delusion for grandeur.
In Captain Kahlen’s dedication to be the first one to cultivate the land and oversee a settlement, one suspects a concealed desire for familial closeness and legacy. Unsurprisingly, the process he gives so much to rewards him with a makeshift family, with Ann Barbara as a surrogate wife and the little girl as a surrogate daughter. A military man himself, Kahlen has embraced dedication to a cause to equal love, so watching his emotional journey to metaphorical fatherhood is an endearing counterpoint to the violent dispute between him and de Schinkel. Something as simple as cultivating a patch of land in the middle of a barren moor can be a meaning-making tool in the life of a cynic. If it’s not all lost for The Promised Land’s captain, after the two-hour runtime of both compromising and moral choices, there’s some hope for all of us.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures will release the film in the U.S.