Danish director Nikolaj Arcel has shown a knack for crafting lavish historical dramas that combine entertainment with substance. His 2012 film A Royal Affair earned an Oscar nomination for its portrait of political intrigue in 18th century Denmark. Now Arcel reteams with his leading man from that film, Mads Mikkelsen, for another period piece immersed in the country’s past.
The Promised Land tells the fact-based story of Ludvig Kahlen, an ambitious army captain who endeavors to achieve greatness by cultivating the desolate Jutland Heath in 1755. Mikkelsen is no stranger to Hollywood, from memorable villainous turns in Casino Royale and Doctor Strange. But in his native Denmark, the imposing actor frequently stars in more heroic roles, using his rugged presence to often stirring effect.
As Kahlen, Mikkelsen plays a war veteran eager to claim a noble title from King Frederik V by making farmland out of the heath’s harsh terrain. The near-barren landscape is considered untamable, so the king’s advisors doubt Kahlen will succeed. He slowly gains allies like runaway couple Johannes and Ann Barbara while facing constant resistance from the arrogant aristocrat Frederik de Schinkel, who controls the surrounding area.
Kahlen secretly plants resilient potato crops in hopes it will help him finally thrive on the heath’s unforgiving soil. The Promised Land has shades of a classic Western, with a determined frontiersman trying to carve out a new home while battling greedy powers-that-be. Reviews have praised Arcel’s balanced direction and Mikkelsen’s strong lead performance. As both an exciting tale and a commentary on ambition, The Promised Land promises to leave its mark.
Conquering the Unconquerable
When we first meet war veteran Ludvig Kahlen, he’s a man on a mission – to somehow cultivate the notoriously barren Jutland Heath into bountiful farmland. This scrubby peninsula has stymied countless settlers before him. But the stubborn ex-soldier persuades Denmark’s royal court to let him give it a go, with a noble title his reward if he succeeds. They figure the odds of that are zilch.
After the king’s skeptical reps give their blessing, Ludvig heads out to this windblown wasteland with little more than his weathered boots and unwavering determination. He builds a rickety homestead amidst the purple heather and starts hacking away at rock-solid soil that barely sprouts scraggly weeds. Realizing the enormity of the task, Ludvig enlists Johannes and Ann Barbara, runaway servants fleeing an abusive aristocrat named Frederik de Schinkel. Their engineering know-how soon has Ludvig wondering if he bit off more than he can chew.
This pompous De Schinkel character has zero faith Ludvig can make this land profitable. He’s long considered it his own personal property to control – and plunder. The selfish creep tries convincing Ludvig to take a hike while ramping up treachery. Our underdog hero also takes pity on young Anmai Mus, an orphaned Romani girl whom locals shun. She earns her keep as his newfound farm grows roots – especially once Ludvig secretly plants hardy taters.
He imported the unfamiliar crop from Germany after getting mercilessly mocked for the idea. But Mikkelsen sells his protagonist’s unflappable belief that spuds could be the key ingredient to fertilize this unforgiving land. An against-all-odds pioneer spirit permeates the film even as De Schinkel’s schemes turn more sinister. By embracing outcasts like Ann and Anmai while stealthily nourishing his subversive subterranean tubers, Ludvig inches defiantly closer to his dream with a stoic charm that Mads was clearly born to inhabit.
Digging Deep Into Character
At its core, The Promised Land is a timeless tale about ambition and how the quest for success can reveal one’s true character. We witness hardened war vet Ludvig Kahlen evolve from near scoundrel willing to cast aside anyone for his goals into a more compassionate leader willing to make personal sacrifices.
When Mikkelsen’s Ludvig sets up camp in the heath’s harsh confines, he sees those around him as expendable extras, not flesh-and-blood people. The bodies stack up as this antihero Shoots first and asks questions later if threatened. It’s a “necessity” of taming such a brutal landscape.
Or so Ludvig believes early on before glimpses of his humanity peek through his flinty façade. Anmai and Ann Barbara are catalysts for this change rather than mere foils highlighting his machismo. Young Anmai’s innocence especially penetrates Ludvig’s defenses, evoking his concern for this orphaned “darkling” whose only family is this embryonic community.
Meanwhile, the slimy aristocrat De Schinkel presents the ugly alternative of power for power’s sake. He mirrors the worst of Ludvig’s early instincts turned up to 11. This preening, petty tyrant lives to dominate all in his vicinity through cruel coercion and intimidation.
Yet while the two men take different paths, they each stubbornly insist the heath can be conquered on their own draconian terms. Only late in the film does Ludvig accept that some things can’t be willed through drive alone when heartbreaking circumstances temper his pride.
Arcel uses this inhospitable backdrop to explore whether the ends ever justify life’s harshest means. Part Danish Western, part survival thriller, The Promised Land builds tension not just from De Schinkel’s appalling actions but through Ludvig’s struggle with his inner demons. We wonder if he will complete his objective yet lose part of his soul in the process.
It’s here Mikkelsen shines in a gripping character study as this engraved slab of a man weighed down by the past. Can he escape the ruthless military mindset etched into his psyche before ambition poisons his humanity? The versatile actor conveys so much with little dialogue. Every weary grimace or glint of fading optimism speaks volumes, etching vivid contours of a compelling antihero. We find ourselves rooting for Ludvig to elevate his community and himself.
Capturing the Brutality and Splendor
Director Nikolaj Arcel takes a workmanlike approach to capturing both the punishing nature and poetic beauty of this panoramic landscape. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk lenses the heath as an alien planet at times with extreme long shots emphasizing Ludvig’s isolation. The protagonist is framed as a lone speck amidst the windswept wasteland he’s trying to make his own.
We feel the bits of flying dirt and splinters through tight shots of Mikkelsen’s creased face as he works the land relentlessly. This gives authentic grittiness to the manual graft required hour after hour, day after day. Sacrificed hands bear the blood and swollen blisters of devotion. Videbæk’s camera then pulls back at just the right moments to reveal the payoff in painterly tableaus celebrating pastoral splendor with golden hour hues dancing across the revived fields.
Arcel similarly knows when to slow down and let poignant beats breathe. He patiently traces the contours of this makeshift family’s evolving dynamic instead of rushing headlong into plot. Quiet moments often resonate the loudest whether it’s clasped hands by a fireside or a raging storm churning the heath’s dormant soul.
When action erupts, it arrives with startling ferocity like the environment is rebelling against man’s imposing ambition. The explosive clashes feel alive with palpable danger thanks to crackling sound design and intricate stunt work rather than just CGI fakery.
What grounds the film through all the ups and downs is Mikkelsen’s captivating lead turn. Arcel trusts his charisma to convey the epic scale through subtle acting choices rather than bombastic camera moves. A hero earning his redemption step by step.
In the Running for Golden Glory
The Promised Land has already placed itself amongst prime awards contenders on the heels of its acclaimed festival run. Denmark wisely selected the historical epic as their entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards.
Oscar voters have a soft spot for Danish dramas exploring thought-provoking themes within impeccably crafted period settings. Three of Denmark’s last six submissions in this category went onto win the golden statue. So hopes are high Nikolaj Arcel’s latest can continue this hot streak after the critical success of his previous Mikkelsen collaboration, 2012’s A Royal Affair.
Mads himself seems destined to keep adding more hardware to an already crowded mantle thanks to his commanding work here. The Cannes jury recently bestowed their Best Actor honor upon the stoic headliner for a performance balancing fiery conviction with emotional vulnerability.
The film’s top-tier production values also increase its chances of resonating with the Academy. Epic scope through intimate details. The Promised Land will likely contend across multiple craft categories as well for its vivid cinematography, lavish costumes, and transporting production design.
And that rousing score has Original Music written all over it. Composer Dan Romer’s sweeping compositions echo through every stirring montage, injecting old-fashioned heart into the against-all-odds saga.
If voters connect with this tale of hardscrabble tenacity versus abuses of power, The Promised Land could be golden. Ludvig Kahlen may yet realize his wildest dreams – and take Mads Mikkelsen back to the Oscars as a contender not just a creepy villain.
A Triumph of Timeless Themes
At its core, The Promised Land is a straightforward tale of one man overcoming adversity through iron will and vision. But director Nikolaj Arcel infuses the age-old blueprint with modern resonance in our current era of polarized politics and social inequality.
He also wisely avoids sanding down his protagonist’s rough edges too much in pursuit of easy inspiration. Ludvig carries himself like a hero yet retains an antihero’s complicated shades of gray. He can be selfish, stubborn, and shockingly brutal when threatened. It’s a bold choice letting him skirt the line of unsympathetic at times.
Yet because Mads Mikkelsen inhabits the role with such soulful command, we understand what drives this difficult man while hoping he can complete his quest without losing his way. Mikkelsen brings a stoic grace to Ludvig’s obsessive nature, hinting at the underlying wounds and self-doubt haunting him.
Some supporting characters like the villainous De Schinkel veer close to melodramatic caricature. But the performances of Amanda Collin and young co-star Melina Hagberg add heartrending humanity amidst the sweeping drama.
In the end, The Promised Land delivers rousing entertainment guided by strong central turns from Mikkelsen and Collin. They provide an emotional anchor for Nikolaj Arcel’s balanced direction and ravishing visual craft. The film distills timeless themes about conviction and sacrifice into a potent serum. We injected into the veins of today to cure the hardened souls among us.
The Promised Land
The Promised Land makes the lofty weight of its titular promise feel tangible thanks to formidable filmmaking and acting. Nikolaj Arcel's latest historical epic combines kinetic action with potent themes in a showcase for leading man Mads Mikkelsen's stoic power. Its grand theatricality is grounded by compassionate performances and virtuosic visual craft. This stirring throwback bravely tills the fertile soil of time-tested drama yet cultivates something more modern in Mikkelsen's flawed hero. He elevates the story into a heartfelt testament to ambitiously reaping one's destiny without losing one’s soul.
- Strong lead performance by Mads Mikkelsen
- Balanced direction by Nikolaj Arcel
- Gorgeous cinematography brings landscapes to life
- Amanda Collin provides excellent support
- Explores timeless themes about ambition/sacrifice
- Rousing, old-fashioned historical drama
- Some antagonists verge on melodramatic
- Plot can feel repetitive in middle section
- Romantic subplot underdeveloped
- Falls into familiar beats at times