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The Promised Land

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Promised Land
Photograph: Henrik Ohsten

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Mads Mikkelsen is a towering presence is a period epic that simmers with political feeling

The most gripping film about potato farming since The Martian, this Danish period epic has Mads Mikkelsen on imperious form as a former soldier on an impossible mission to cultivate the bleak and forbidding landscape of Jutland. 

The title – its grabbier Danish name ‘Bastarden’ captures the film’s fierce spirit better – refers to a scrubby peninsular in the country’s western fringes. It’s so barren, everyone in the 18th century court of Frederick V has all but given up on it. Fortunately, there’s one thing more weathered and rugged than this forbidding landscape: Mikkelsen’s desperate army veteran Captain Ludvig Kahlen. This dogged and down-on-his-luck character has a pitch for the bigwigs: he will cultivate the land for the crown and in return, the king will ennoble him. It’s a safe bet for the crown. ‘The heath cannot be tamed’ is the received wisdom.

Early scenes, framed in widescreen under leaden skies, see Kahlen grinding fruitlessly away. He builds a homestead, hiring a pair of escaped servants to help, and forlornly tries to coax life from the dead soil. Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel lets us feel the biting wind on Kahlen’s back and sense the fatigue, before ramping up the stakes with an old-fashioned villain. Enter Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg, extremely hissable), a local landowner who takes a jealous interest in the farmer’s progress, eager to maintain the status quo in his corner of Denmark.

The Promised Land makes for a gripping man-versus-wilderness survival story with unmistakable political undertones, but it’s also nimble enough to allow romance to blossom under its slate-grey skies, when the sweetly abashed Captain catches the eye of his steely new hire (Amanda Collin) and de Schinkel’s poised fiancée (Kristine Kujath Thorp). 

It’s the most gripping film about potato farming since The Martian

Mikkelsen communicates his character’s gradual softening via the tiniest expressions. It’s a masterclass in less-is-more minimalism and wins you over to a man who can be a bit of a basterden himself when you first meet him.  

The talented Arcel has had a rollercoaster decade or so, veering from the Oscar-nominated acclaim of A Royal Affair (a Danish period piece set a few years later) to the 15-percent-on-Rotten-Tomatoes ignominy of his Hollywood blockbuster, The Dark Tower. Here, he’s crafted a kind of Danish The Last of the Mohicans that’s full of passion and political conviction. It should stand the test of time almost as well as its rugged hero.  

In US theaters Feb 2 and UK cinemas Feb 16.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Nikolaj Arcel
  • Screenwriter:Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
  • Cast:
    • Mads Mikkelsen
    • Amanda Collin
    • Soren Malling
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