MA 15+, 127 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Like others who have thought big and staked a claim in wild country, the solitary figure riding across a windswept moor at the start of this striking new film from Denmark is a pioneer.  He has a plan for the bleak landscape he has ridden into, to turn its vast tracts of heather into agricultural land. And he is going to need more than a little true grit.

Although the vegetation in this remote corner of the Jutland Peninsula is a wall-to-wall carpet of heather and grows nothing taller than a shrub, let alone a tree, he starts boring into the soil for signs that it could be productive. It doesn’t look too promising for farming, but he is driven, and he is stubborn. Perhaps the forests and cultivated gardens nearby give him hope.

Captain Ludvig Kahlen, played by wonderful Mads Mikkelsen, has a background in European wars. A veteran of the German army, with 25 years’ service behind him, he has come to the Jutland Heath on a quest to make the unpromising land viable so small farming communities can live there. He is on a mission for the King, or so he believes. He must just find out what kind of crops will grow there, and once it’s proven possible to sustain settlement, he can expect to be rewarded with a noble title, a manor and servants.

The other dimension to this quest is that he is the bastard son of a landowner whose legitimate son has inherited a fine property nearby. Kahlen has more than a point to prove. He has a birthright to restore, and he is after reward for effort.

Epic tale that begins in 1755, at a time of excruciating inequity in Danish society so different from today

The original Danish title of The Promised Land is Bastarden, The Bastard. It serves the film better. Not only does it reference Kahlen’s ancestry, but it also works as a double entendre, as a comment on the odious Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the legitimate son and rightful heir to the estate of Hald Manor. Close to cackling caricature, he is both brutal landlord and district magistrate who delivers judgement and punishment at his own will.

This epic tale loosely based on the historical figure of Kahlen begins in 1755, at a time of excruciating inequity in Danish society so different from today, in a country where inequality and poverty are at a low level. In the 18th century, conditions were such that pet dogs and parrots could eat from the plates on their owners’ tables, while the poor were little better than slaves, with masters who had power over their life and death. This terrible power unleashes some horrifying scenes of violence at certain points in the film.

Mikkelsen’s character does not have much to say but is as imposing a presence as ever. The roaring wind dominates the soundtrack and there is little talk in The Promised Land, in keeping with the hard life on the land that it represents. Though there is the occasional verbal duel, like the fascinating encounters between Kahlen and Schinkel in which they air their views on nature, civilisation and ‘chaos’.

This epic, based on a historical novel by Ida Jessen, is directed by Nikolaj Arcel and co-written with Anders Thomas Jensen. These two Danish filmmakers have massively impressive lists of credits. Arcel directed Mikkelsen in the exquisite A Royal Affair based on his screenplay, at around the same time he was working on the screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Writer-director Jensen has written powerful work for director Susan Bier like Brothers and Open Hearts.

 Roaring wind dominates the soundtrack and there is little talk, in keeping with the hard life on the land that it represents.

While the central contest is between male characters and between man and nature, there are female characters who make their presence felt. Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), who stays on under Kahlen’s roof after Schinkel murders her husband, develops a relationship with the taciturn Captain. The couple become carers for a Romani girl (Melina Hagberg) after her people move on, creating a kind of family.

House guest at Schinkel’s, Edel Helene (Kristine Kujal Thorp) is staying with her execrable cousin until she agrees to either marry him or find someone else equally suitable. She lingers, interested in the Captain, if he can succeed in his vision.

Set against high and wide vistas, this primal drama with impressive performances from Mikkelsen and the cast, offers another powerful foundation story for our times.

First published in the Canberra Times on 23 June 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes