Adapted from the novel by Ida Jessen, The Promised Land labours hard and well to become a film worth watching. Through his efforts, it’s clear director Nikolaj Arcel knows how to do this: as co-written with Anders Thomas Jensen, his film faithfully recreates its milieu—1750s rural Danish life—while granting its star, Mads Mikkelsen, the room to do what he does best. For any historical drama, this combination is often enough.
In The Promised Land, Mikkelsen leads as Ludvig von Kahlen, a retired army captain who decides—against all but the King’s logic—to cultivate the wilds of the inhospitable Jutland heath. Though the climate and bandits prove challenging, the real terror for Kahlen is the film’s other strong point: the high-class villain Frederik De Schinkel, played with wormy relish by Simon Bennebjerg, who claims all the land for himself. The stand-off between these two men gives shape to the rest of Arcel’s film, filled in from there with strong roles for Amanda Collin as Kahlen’s right-hand woman, the pair’s adoptive young charge (Melina Hagberg), a dutiful priest (Gustav Lindh), and more. While no doubt more comprehensive in the book, the film provides enough period detail—primarily of rural farming and local politics—to create a clear picture of what Kahlen and company are trying to do, and what they’re up against. Of course, Arcel doesn’t shy away from the natural splendour of his setting either, which would lend an epic air to the proceedings even without much effort. The same goes for Mikkelsen’s performance, which is as solid as the land it springs from. It’s easy to feel like we’re in good hands throughout.
All of which is also to say, The Promised Land is a straightforward film with well-trodden narrative lines. Though its ending third does become a bit muddy in execution, the film arrives at a real feeling of satisfaction (not self-satisfaction). What’s more, the breeze of ambiguity that blows through its final scenes does enough to dispel the notion we’ve seen this all before.