de facto film reviews 3 stars

The sweeping historical epic is a longtime favorite genre for filmmakers. Even now, outside of the genre’s heyday, there are still quite a few that pop up. Recent examples include NapoleonThe Woman King, and The Last Duel. Like many of these films, director Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land starts with a kernel of historical truth and then expounds on that to make an entertaining story. Here, Arcel and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen are adapting Ida Jessen’s historical novel The Captain and Ann Barbara, a fictionalization of the story of Ludvig von Kahlen who attempted to settle the Jutland Heath. The film, powered by an outstanding performance from Mads Mikkelsen starts off very strongly before somewhat losing its way in the last act.

The film opens in 1755 with Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) in a veteran’s home in Denmark. He has served for the last 25 years in the German army. The bastard son of a noble who was sent off to the army to get him out of the way, Kahlen rose through the ranks to become a Captain. Now he is traveling to court with a proposition. He knows that the Danish king is obsessed with settling the wild and inhospitable Jutland Heath. He proposes to the king’s advisors that he be given permission to try to cultivate crops on the Heath. In return, if he does so, he will be given a noble title and an estate. The advisors have seen the Heath defeat multiple attempts at settlement/cultivation previously, so they give Kahlen his writ assuming that he will fail. But Kahlen continues to test the land, eventually finding soil that looks hospitable to growth. So he places orders for building materials and the plants for his crops in town. When he arrives there, Kahlen makes fast friends with Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh), a local priest who is hoping for Kahlen’s success. He also finds himself crossing paths with Frederick de Schinkel (Simon Bennenbjerg), a local magistrate and landowner who has no intention of giving up control of the Heath, which he believes to be his. Also at de Schinkel’s estate is his cousin Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who he is trying to convince to accept his marriage proposal. She takes a quick interest in the rugged Kahlen.

The Promised Land (2023) directed by Nikolaj Arcel • Reviews, film + cast • Letterboxd Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Kahlen hires several local men to help him build his house, and is also persuaded by Eklund to take on Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), two runaway serfs. de Schinkel soon hires Kahlen’s employees out from under him, leaving only Johannes and Ann Barbara. Knowing the amount of work it will take to make the land ready, Kahlen captures a young Tattare (the term in the film for Romani travelers) girl named Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg) who has robbed the farm previously and demands that she take him to her camp. There, he hires the group to work for him, despite the fact that the Romani aren’t legally allowed to work. Coming out to check on Kahlen’s progress, de Schinkel reprimands Kahlen for hiring the Romani, and also spots Johannes and Ann Barbara, who it turns out are on the run from him.

Right before Kahlen leaves to attend a harvest festival, he sends Johannes to order the clay they’ll need for the soil. But Johannes is captured by de Schinkel’s men, and is tortured and killed in front of the guests at the festival. When Kahlen brings Johannes’s body back, the Romani see it and refuse to stay, though Anmai Mus remains behind. It’s at this time that Kahlen reveals his secret – he is planning to plant potatoes, which grow in harsh conditions. Despite some setbacks, the first harvest is successful. Over the course of the long winter, Kahlen, Ann Barbara, and Anmai Mus form a family of sorts, with Kahlen and Ann Barbara starting a physical relationship that blossoms into something deeper. When word reaches the King that Kahlen has cultivated the Heath, he is sent supplies and a group of settlers to help him. de Schinkel, furious, sends a group of inmates led by his personal guard to kill the livestock and several of the settlers. When Kahlen retaliates, he is arrested. The rest of the film becomes something of an adventure/revenge story as de Schinkel receives his just desserts.

The Promised Land: Press Kit — Magnolia Pictures | Independent Films | Documentaries Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

One of the great strengths of The Promised Land is how it was shot. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk takes great advantage of the beautiful harshness of the setting. The look is reminiscent of last year’s Godland. Arcel’s direction in relation to performances and composition is excellent as well. The writing is where the film struggles. This may be an issue with the source material itself as much as with Arcel and Jensen’s adaptation, but as the film goes on, it starts moving from a stark drama to something more along the lines of a romance novel. What feels very grounded at the start becomes somewhat outlandish, with defenestrations, castrations, and prison escapes. Unfortunately, a lot of this can be laid at the feet of the primary villain. Bennenbjerg gives a good performance with the material that he is given, but de Schinkel is written more and more as a cartoonish monster as the story goes on. An antagonist who is cruel but with clear motivations early on seems solely engineered to have the audience hate him by the end. It’s a disappointing loss of complexity. The film also seems to be coming to a melancholy end for Kahlen, which fits the story very well, only to have a last minute bungling to make for a happier ending.

The film’s performances are strong overall. Mikkelsen is tremendous. He plays Kahlen as a harsh man built for a harsh place, who we see start to soften slightly with the influence of the women in his life. Kahlen is stubborn, and one of the more interesting themes in the film is how his rigid choices, while often having short-term payoffs, only hurt him in the end. Collin is also excellent as Ann Barbara, who faces loss time and time again but remains upright in the face of it. Melina Hagberg gives a very good child performance as the precocious and profane Anmai Mus. The end of her story is one of the best parts of the final act of the film. The Promised Land doesn’t finish nearly as well as it starts, but the performances and the cinematography make it worth watching.

The Promised Land is now showing in limited theaters.