The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE PROMISED LAND | The Movie Waffler


In 18th century Denmark, a former soldier battles the harsh terrain and an unscrupulous landowner.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Simon Bennebjerg, Amanda Collin, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Gustav Lindh

The Promised Land poster

The Promised Land is the kind of movie that makes us exclaim "They don’t make 'em like that anymore." It's a hybrid of sorts of two once dominant but currently unfashionable genres – the western and the historical epic – and it will remind you of why such movies can hold you in their thrall on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Director Nikolaj Arcel and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (a prolific screenwriter who has turned his hand to every genre conceivable) take inspiration from Ida Jessen's book 'The Captain and Ann Barbara', a fictionalised account of the story of Ludvig Kahlen, played here by that titan of Danish cinema, Mads Mikkelsen, in what might be his finest performance to date.

The Promised Land review

In 1755, Kahlen has just finished as 25-year stint in the army, eventually reaching the status of Captain despite his lower class background. We're told that a nobleman usually becomes a Captain within months of joining the military, but for Kahlen it took decades. Kahlen is himself obsessed with joining the nobility, and when the King becomes determined to settle the Jutland heath, an area considered uninhabitable due to its untamed soil, Kahlen sees this as his chance. The Royal court laughs off his claims that he can tame the heath, but they figure if they send Kahlen out to the desolate patch it will keep the King off their backs.

Kahlen has a canny plan to grow potatoes on the heath, as they're known to thrive in the harshest of conditions. Trouble is, he can't afford to pay any workers to assist him. A local pastor (Gustav Lindh) facilitates a solution in the form of Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen), a young couple who are in hiding after fleeing the employ of an abusive landowner.

Kahlen's presence on the heath makes him an enemy of local toff Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who claims to own all the land in the territory without possessing any paperwork to back up such an assertion. De Schinkel also happens to be the very same landowner from whom Ann Barbara and Johannes are hiding. Kahlen's refusal to agree to de Schinkel's terms of handing over half of whatever profits he makes, along with the fugitive couple, makes him an enemy of de Schinkel, whose methods become increasingly violent. There's also the awkwardness of de Schinkel's cousin Edel (Kristin Kujath Thorp) having the hots for Kahlen. De Schinkel hopes to marry Edel, who is a member of Norwegian royalty.

The Promised Land review

It's a story Hollywood has told time and again, at least in the 20th century; that of a quiet man who just wants to get on with his life but finds a rich asshole standing in his way. The Promised Land distinguishes itself with both its untapped Danish setting and the nuance it brings to such a simple premise. Mikkelsen's Kahlen is by no means a straightforward hero. In fact he's pretty damn unlikeable for a considerable stretch of the narrative. He's initially a narcissist whose ambitions towards nobility make him all too willing to exploit others like Ann Barbara and Johannes, whom he refuses to pay, taking advantage of their desperate situation. Attacked by an outlaw in the woods, he blows the man's head off without hesitation. He even slaps a child, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a precocious gypsy girl who desperately wants a family of her own.

As the narrative progresses and Kahlen sees de Schinkel as representative of the sort of life he's always aspired to, he begins to question things. He softens up, forming a sort of surrogate family with Ann Barbara and Anmai Mus. When the potato crop finally comes in and a group of German settlers arrive, Kahlen's ambitious ruthlessness rises to the surface once again.

The Promised Land review

What makes us remain on Kahlen's side, even when he's being a massive dick, is the fact that de Schinkel is one of the most reprehensibly awful screen villains to come along in quite some time. Bennebjerg is delightfully caddish as the sort of mustache twirling fop Errol Flynn might have run a blade through. Adding the "de" to his name to make himself seem more noble, de Schinkel is highly irritated by Kahlen's insistence on calling him simply Schinkel. We spend the movie rooting for de Schinkel's comeuppance. We know it's coming, because that's exactly the type of movie The Promised Land is (and frankly, if de Schinkel didn't get his there would be riots in cinemas), but the manner in which it comes about is a surprising and applause worthy twist on how this sort of story tends to climax.

The Promised Land has everything you want from a historical epic: compelling characters with interesting arcs; larger than life performances; stunning cinematography and production design that contrasts the harshness of the heath with the comfort and finery of the de Schinkel estate; and lots of bloodshed. Seems they do still make 'em like this after all.

The Promised Land is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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