At first glance, it might seem The Promised Land is another typical period drama with the hallmarks of one — gore, sex and scandal. However, this is an unexpectedly raw and emotive, almost allegorical, tale of the dangers of power mania and greed.
The Promised Land, otherwise known as Bastaarden as per its Danish title, is from seasoned director Nikolaj Arcel whose portfolio to date is known for similar stories of 18th century megalomania. For example, A Royal Affair, also starring Mads Mikkelsen, is a story set in the 18th century about the mentally ill King Christian VII and his wife who romances the royal physician. It pushed Arcel into the international limelight and this number might just do the same.
The Promised Land is set in the mid-18th century Danish Jutland which is a vast, open expanse of heath, making up a significant proportion of the mainland. Mikkelsen plays Captain Ludvig Kahlen who is considered to be of humble status as the son of a maid born out of wedlock. By mid-18th century standards, he is considered to have done well for himself as an ex-military man. But Kahlen is still snubbed by the elite who notice he is living off a measly pension and barely able to buy himself anything more than a sack of oats.
Kahlen is an ambitious man; he asks the Royal Danish Court for permission to cultivate the Jutland heath — known by all as being almost impossible to grow anything on — to establish a settlement. In return for making the heath a functioning part of the King's land, Kahlen asks as recompense to be honoured with a noble title, once he succeeds.
Getting in the way of Kahlen's highly ambitious plans is nearby landowner Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) who has been trying to annex the heath to extend his territory. De Schinkel is a terrifyingly juvenile man, dizzy with power and living by his aphorism that “Life is chaos; painful and unpleasant, beautiful and extraordinary, and we often cannot control it.” He appears to live by this belief too literally as we see in the randomness of his cruel, sadistic acts toward those around him and in service to him.
Kahlen, with the help of two runaway indentured servants to De Schinkel, and a child (Melina Hagberg) who escapes a group of outlaws, begins working the heath. Kahlen hadn't envisaged that along the way to his dream, things might not turn out quite the way he had planned. His stoic resoluteness in fulfilling his promise to the King becomes complicated with unexpected feelings of love for the small family he has created in the child and one of the runaways, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collins) who gives a memorable performance in sweet, savage revenge in the second half.
The Promised Land is an unvarnished look at the excesses of the elite in the 18th century. Arcel doesn't hide behind anything to expose the brutality of that era with all of its violence, prejudice and class division. Mikkelson is on point with his characteristic minimalist acting that is well-matched to the quietly confident nature of Kahlen. Likewise, the film wouldn't be what it is without Bennebjerg who is so great as the deranged egotist De Schinkel that there's almost a comedic touch to his character. It's a wonderfully paced film and you'll be hard-pressed to find a dull moment. Although Kahlen is a conflicted character at times, you are gripped in his ambitions of sticking it to De Schinkel right to the end.
The Promised Land might be a kind of socio-political statement on karmic justice against the avarice of the landowning classes. But at its core, it is about the triumph of finding meaning through love over seeking hollow ideals of nobility and status. Arcel skilfully orchestrates the film to culminate in the message that it was never really about the heath being difficult to tame — it's about man being his own worst enemy.
Icon Film Distribution presents The Promised Land in UK cinemas from 16th February