The Promised Land Movie Review: Mads Mikkelsen Harvests Another Winner

When a destitute retired army captain sets out on a quixotic quest to cultivate inhospitable land, he runs afoul of a scheming land baron determined to get rid of him by any means necessary. Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen leads the cast as Ludwig Kahlen in this true story of a man determined to find honor and recognition seemingly out of reach due to his station in life.

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Kahlen is an intriguing character, a man so devoted to landing a royal title that he’s willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to achieve his goal. In Mikkelsen’s highly capable hands, Kahlen is shown to be a principled, disciplined man who plays his emotions close to his vest, always keeping his eye on his long-term goal. When Kahlen sets out on his fool’s errand of taming the desolate heath in the Danish hinterlands, he’s laughed off by both the royal court of the King and the local lord who thinks he controls the heath, at least until he begins to find some measure of success.

Director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel has crafted a thoroughly engrossing historical epic that makes us feel every one of Kahlen’s challenges on a visceral level. Kahlen experiences so many setbacks his life seems to be mirroring the biblical trials of Job, and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about his unwavering devotion to success, a scrappy underdog destined to achieve his fondest desire. Arcel avoids trite feel-good simplicity in his tale, especially around the 80-minute mark where most U.S. films would be wrapping up at a positive stopping point. That’s just where Arcel is getting started, plunging Kahlen into the darkest depths of despair as he grapples with what’s really important: the de facto family life he has constructed on his farm or his steely determination to make the royals formally recognize this bastard son of a maid raped by her titled master.

The strong supporting cast is led by Amanda Collin as Ann Barbara, best known to U.S. audiences as Mother in the MAX series Raised by Wolves. Her character goes through the greatest change, moving from a cowed escaped servant to a contented farm partner to a vengeful assassin, with her final transformation an utter joy to witness in all its gruesome glory. Less effective is Kristine Kujath Thorp as Kahlen’s royal love interest, Edel Helene. That’s no fault of Thorp, just the nature of her bland role that offers her no chance to display the sly humor she perfected in the pitch-black comedy, Sick of Myself. Rounding out the principal cast is Morten Hee Andersen as the dastardly villain, Johannes Eriksen, embracing his role with such evil glee one wishes he had a mustache to twirl.

This is an exceptionally good-looking film, with sweeping exterior vistas and skillfully lit and staged interiors. Arcel reteams with his principal cinematographer, Rasmus Videbaek, to capture the hidden beauty of the barren heath and the fully exposed debauchery of the evil local lord’s estate. It’s a welcome return to form for them after their largely disastrous Hollywood foray in the confounding adaptation of The Dark Tower, and a fine reminder of their excellent prior Danish historical epic (also starring Mikkelsen), A Royal Affair, that first catapulted them to international attention.

After a brief theatrical release this month, The Promised Land arrives on digital on February 23rd, available at all major retailers. For more information, visit the Magnolia Pictures website here.

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Steve Geise

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