After his failed attempt at breaking into Hollywood with The Dark Tower, Danish director Nikolaj Arcel returns with one of the best period dramas in years. The Promised Land is a sturdy and brutal tale of a piece of history I knew nothing about, which is always nice to see. Learning through entertainment!
It goes that In the 1700’s, much of Denmark was considered uninhabitable, due to rough land called the heath, or “Jutland.” Covered in thicket and heather, with unfriendly soil, nobody could grow anything there. If they couldn’t grow, they couldn’t live on and develop the land. It sat largely empty, occupied by wolves and roaming gangs of “outlaws.” Then comes Mads Mikkelsen, who gives every project he works in a seal of some quality. As Ludvig Kahlen (a real historical figure), he’s a lifer army guy who worked himself up from nothing, and still has little to show for it. But he’s found a way to convince some of the Danish King’s men to let him try to build a farm on the heath. Plus, he has a secret plan, a crop that might actually succeed on this hard land.
This sets him directly on a collision course with a nearby landowner- the diabolically evil Frederik De Schinkel (played by Simon Bennebjerg). Imagine Daemon Targaryen crossed with Joffrey Barathoen and you’re getting close. The two men land in an interesting grey area- where the land has been fingered by the king to be cultivated, but it is still claimed by De Schinkel. The forces of local and Monarchic rule clash, and since the Danish king is apparently drunk most of the time, no one is there to back up Ludvig. What follows is a brutal series of battles and provocations, not for the faint of heart.
The Promised Land has a cadre of characters who feel so real- Ludvig’s help Ann Barbara, a young Romani girl Anmai Mus that they come to care for, a local priest named Anton. The demands of creating civilization bring violence and death, and ultimately promise little in return if your family is sacrificed at the altar of capital. Every character has an arc, every scene has a purpose. Every moment matters. It’s a little over two hours, and feels like a novel or a season of television. Producers who are always looking to make the next ten hour season of poorly paced television should take this as a great example of doing far more with less.
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Written by Nikolaj Arcel, Anders Thomas Jensen, Ida Jessen
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Simon Bennebjerg, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Amanda Collin
Not rated, 127 minutes