Review: ‘The Promised Land’

Mads Mikkelsen Conquers Another Complex, Tragic Hero Role In Nikolaj Arcel's Rugged Historical Epic

Mads Mikkelsen might be the most terrifying actor in the world. You know a dude is scary when their smile makes you want to run for cover. But it’s Mikkelsen’s expressive face and stoic demeanor that also helps to make him so well-rounded, and capable of projecting menace as easily as he can show sensitivity. And he shows all of these traits in Nikolaj Arcel’s bleak historical drama, The Promised Land, delivering a tour-de-force performance as a man who learns he must be more adaptable than the harsh, unforgiving land he sets out to conquer.

Mikkelsen’s rugged, angular features make him perfect for the role of Captain Ludvig Kahlen, a real-life historical figure of which little is known. When we first meet him, he’s polishing his medals after 25 years serving in the German Army. However, he’s polishing them from inside of a poor house, which shows the extent of the charity extended by Denmark to its war veterans. Ludvig, with his measly pension, has aspirations of nobility, and to do it he requests Royal permission to tame the barren Jutland Heath, cultivate it, and make it capable of sustaining a community. He’s practically laughed out of the castle by the King’s aides. Many have tried and failed, and they believe Ludvig will be no different. But they grant him permission solely to keep the King happy, as he also has hopes of seeing the Heath conquered once and for all.

The rocky terrain is the least of Ludvig’s problems, it’s the people who give him the most trouble. Worst of all is local magistrate Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a clownish but extremely dangerous brute who fears Ludvig’s efforts will diminish his power. Frederik will prove to be both a political and physical threat, not just to Ludvig but to the few people he comes to rely on. Those would be runaway laborers Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), who fled poor treatment by Frederik. And then there’s gypsy orphan Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), called a “darkling” and treated cruelly by everyone she encounters. In her, we see that their are caste systems in place even among the most impoverished people in the land.

The Promised Land feels like a sweeping historical epic of grand design, a real accomplishment by director Nikolaj Arcel given how simple and personal the story is. But Ludvig’s evolution is a fascinating thing to watch, as he’s not a fully heroic man by any means. In another filmmaker’s hands, that would’ve been the easy direction to take. But Ludvig starts off the film very cold and even violent to the people he meets. It’s easy to see why; you have this soldier who has risked his life for a country that disrespects him and lets him live in squalor. In this world of chaos, Ludvig is trying to carve out a place where he belongs, and he’ll not tolerate anyone who stands in his way. In the beginning, that attitude manifests in cold-hearted interactions with others.

Eventually, Ludvig’s single-minded focus becomes a different thing. When faced with Frederick’s murderous intentions, Ludvig realizes that he will need help to see his dream to fruition, and those people he dismissed earlier are the ones who will help him achieve it. They also have their own dreams to achieve, and they aren’t that much different from his own. What forms is something close to a makeshift family that Ludvig feels he must protect from harm. But Ludvig is never a saint, and it’s always when compromising those relationships he’s made that he makes his biggest mistakes. He occasionally seeks the easy way out, to keep Frederick off of his back and to please the King (“It’s the King’s land”, he always tells himself). When much-needed laborers arrive to work the land, but they demand he get rid of Anmai because darklings are supposedly bad luck, Ludvig promises to keep the girl, who has been one of his most reliable workers, hidden away and out of sight. It’s a choice he comes to regret, as he does so many others.

It’s the many contradictions swirling around in Ludvig that make The Promised Land so compelling. Backed by Dan Romer’s swelling score and fantastic performances throughout, Arcel seems to have found his groove again. One of Denmark’s most accomplished filmmakers after his Oscar-nominated drama A Royal Affair, Arcel made the crucial mistake of coming to the U.S. to direct a dreadful adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. That was six years ago, and this is his first film since then. He seems to have gotten back to his roots, not only by tackling another drama centered around nobility, but by leaning hard on the talent in front of the camera. Arcel didn’t completely leave genre behind, though. There are acts of barbarity in this film that will make your skin crawl, and the final act delivers a very bloody and crowd-pleasing coup de grace. It’s unclear how accurately The Promised Land reflects the reality of Ludvig Kahlen’s life, but this is the kind of robust storytelling and powerful depiction by Mads Mikkelsen that ensures he’ll at least be remembered cinematically for a long time to come.

The Promised Land is open in theaters now.


The Promised Land
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-the-promised-landMads Mikkelsen might be the most terrifying actor in the world. You know a dude is scary when their smile makes you want to run for cover. But it's Mikkelsen's expressive face and stoic demeanor that also helps to make him so well-rounded, and...