‘Invigoratingly savage Nordic western’ stars Mads Mikkelsen as a retired army captain attempting to tame Jutland in 1755

The Promised Land

Source: Henrik Ohsten / Zentropa

‘The Promised Land’

Dir: Nikolaj Arcel. Denmark/Germany/Sweden. 2023. 127mins

A retired army captain of humble birth, Ludvig Kahlen (a flinty, ominously impassive Mads Mikkelsen) answers the call of the Danish King and, in 1755, sets out to colonise and cultivate the barren heath of Jutland. But his modest progress is soon stymied by the local landowner, Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a cruel despot who believes that he is the rightful owner of the land. Two women play key roles in the escalating tensions between the men: Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is the cousin that De Schinkel hopes to marry; Ann-Barbara (Amanda Collin) is the resourceful peasant who, along with her husband, escaped De Schinkel but incurred his wrath. An invigoratingly savage Nordic western, The Promised Land is earthy, enjoyable stuff: an expansive, sweeping epic with hope in its heart and dirt under its nails.

A tale of man’s hubris, fatal pride, frontier folk, bandits and potatoes

The picture marks a return to Danish language filmmaking for director Nikolaj Arcel, after his 2017 Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower, and reunites him with Mikkelsen, who starred in Arcel’s Oscar-nominated film A Royal Affair (2012). A tale of man’s hubris, fatal pride, frontier folk, bandits and potatoes, this adaptation of Ida Jessen’s novel ’The Captain and Ann Barbara’ combines a classic Western scenario with a distinctive Scandinavian flavour, to impressive effect. Hlynur Palmason’s Godland will be an obvious comparison, in tone, themes and potential audience overlap. Following a triple festival launchpad – after Venice, The Promised Land screens in Telluride and Toronto – it should be a title of considerable interest for distributors looking for prestige arthouse pictures.

Ludvig is a man who has always had to prove himself – the film’s Danish title, Bastarden, succinctly spells out the stain of his illegitimacy and his Sisyphean struggle to gain respect and acceptance. The military gave him that opportunity, and although retired, Ludvig proudly wears his now rather threadbare uniform along with his upright soldier’s demeanour. But rigour and order can only get you so far when confronted with the chaos of the natural world – something that de Schinkel gleefully points out in his thin, needling voice. 

The unpromising scrubland, with its muted mossy light and wide, flat horizon, is as brutally indifferent to Ludvig’s sweat and toil as the booze-sodden monarch in whose name the whole endeavour is undertaken. But while nature is cruel, she has nothing on de Schinkel, a tittering sadist and preening dandy who views torturing a man to death as a bit of light entertainment. Bennebjerg is terrific in the role, milking every last drop of smiling malice from this petty man whose father openly favoured his dogs over his son and heir. The threat of violence in the film is heralded by a oft-repeated swelling alarm call in the score that sounds as though it has burst out of the guts of the earth. 

The women in the story, while occasionally equal to the male capacity for bloody excess, generally bring a more grounded pragmatism to life on the unforgiving Jutland heath. The men are driven by pride and greed, the women by the basic need for survival. Edel, trapped in a gilded cage by an avaricious father who insists she marries for money, sees in the sober Captain an alternative to the unbearable fate of marrying her cousin. Ann-Barbara works off the misfortune of her previous life as Ludvig’s housekeeper, but makes it clear from the outset that she is his equal, not his servant. And then there’s Anmai Mus (Hagberg Melina), a little Roma girl, persecuted by the locals for her dark skin, who chooses Ludvig and Ann-Barbara as her adopted kin. It is a lesson learned late for Ludvig but, if he finally comes to realise that there is more to life than status and noble titles, it is thanks to the women around him.

Production companies: Magnolia Pictures, Zentropa Entertainments

International sales: Trustnordisk Susan@trustnordisk.com

Producer: Louise Vesth

Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel

Cinematography: Rasmus Videbæk

Editing: Olivier Bugge Coutté

Production Design: Jette Lehmann

Music: Dan Romer

Main cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Gustav Lindh