13 April 2024

Kongens Land - Zentropa - Nikolaj Arcel

Film Review: The Promised Land (2024)

Despite, and indeed in no small part because of, the fact that the Western is such a quintessentially American genre, interesting things tend to happen when other countries take a crack at one. Here we have a rarity, a Danish Western, as grim and unforgiving as the hard, barren land its hero is attempting to farm; there isn’t much room for humour here, other than an unintentionally funny title card where the Danish Bastarden is subtitled The Promised Land.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Ludvig Kahlen, a veteran army captain who wants to try to cultivate and bring civilisation to the uninhabited, inhospitable heath in the north. There’s nothing there except sand, rocks, and heather: no crops will grow, and plenty have tried. But Ludvig won’t take no for an answer and has a secret weapon in the crop he intends to sow, which puts him on a collision course with psychopathic nouveau riche landowner Frederik de Schinkel.

It’s familiar stuff story-wise, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mikkelsen is good at this kind of thing, as he demonstrated in the 2014 Danish Western (we need to come up with a name for these, apparently) The Salvation. He can speak monologues without a single word, his lined, expressive face perfect for this stoic, solemn Man With No Name-type character.

The titular bastard, Kahlen inherited nothing from his noble father, has had to earn everything the hard way, and sees cultivating the heath as his ticket to nobility and prosperity. Mikkelsen gives us a superb study of a destructively obsessive personality, for whom nothing is ever enough, even when he starts to build an odd surrogate family for himself in this wilderness. It doesn’t salve the bitterness he feels over his lot in life, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his noble title.

The film is a portrait of obsession: Kahlen is illegitimate, lowborn, and determined to grab what he feels he should have had all along, de Schinkel is born to wealth but viewed by the gentry as a dangerous, arrogant upstart. On paper, they couldn’t be more unlike, but the queasy similarities become more and more prominent as the film goes on, both dissatisfied with their station and capable of doing awful and stupid things to “fix” it.

De Schinkel, played with crazed, wild-eyed relish by Simon Bennebjerg, is distinctly Joffrey Baratheon-esque, and director Nikolaj Arcel doesn’t skimp on the violence and torture: they don’t come frequently, but when they do they have all the more impact as a result, one particularly bloody death in the third act being genuinely wince-inducing to watch. This is, of course, praise.

The bleak beauty of the heather on the foggy heath may seem far removed from the arid deserts of the traditional Western, but Arcel shoots it similarly: a vast indifferent wilderness that cares nothing for the people living on it, and which must be forcibly tamed. There’s genuinely epic sweep and grandeur to the storytelling, in large part down to these locations, which never let us forget how tiny these people are in the grand scheme of things.

The Promised Land is a grim, bleak film but it is peppered throughout with moments of connection and real human warmth, without which the rest of it would work nowhere near as well. A gripping story of a man who’s driven to such a degree that he almost seems deranged, with explosive, horribly violent consequences for his actions, it’s not at all unlike a hypothetical Danish remake of There Will Be Blood, just with potatoes instead of oil.


In UK cinemas from 16th February | Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg | Dir: Nikolaj Arcel | Icon Film Distribution | 15

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