Producer: Louise Vesth   Director: Nikolaj Arcel   Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel    Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Melina Hagberg, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Gustav Lindh, Søren Malling, Morten Hee Andersen, Jacob Lohmann, Magnus Krepper, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Laura Bilgrau, Hans Christian Lundgren, Morten Burian, Olaf Højgaard and Felix Kramer     Distributor: Magnolia Films

Grade: B

Nikolaj Arcel’s film is based on history—specifically the introduction of settled agriculture to Denmark’s inhospitable Jutland health in the mid-eighteenth century, with a focus on the efforts of ex-soldier Ludvig Kahlen.  But it’s not, strictly speaking, historical, since details of Kahlen’s enterprise are scanty.  Rather it’s an adaptation of a 2022 novel, “Kaptajnen og Ann Barbara,” by Ida Jessen, which turned it into a romantic epic of good versus evil. 

As played by Mads Mikkelsen, who previously collaborated with Arcej on another excellent period drama “A Royal Affair,” Kahlen is a dour, laconic veteran who wins approval for his proposal from the royal administrators of Frederick V simply because the monarch, somewhat of a progressive despite a tendency toward hedonism, longed to see the heath made productive.  Kahlen, the illegitimate son of a nobleman who’d had to make his own way in the world (thus the film’s Danish title “Bastarden”), immediately attracts the enmity of the local landowner Frederich De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a cynical and cruel man who’s arbitrarily assumed a noble change to his commoner name and enjoys tyrannizing his tenant workers.  Resenting any threat to his absolute control of the region, he wants to see the newcomer, who constructs a farm he calls the King’s House, compelled to return to the south as quickly as possible.  He even tries, unsuccessfully, to bribe Kahlen into aborting his plans. 

That explains Kahlen’s inability to attract workers to the fields he hopes to plant with potatoes, which he thinks resilient enough to survive in the poor soil and harsh climate; even the outcast Romani folk called Taters (tatere or tattare) abandon him when threatened by Schinkel, and in time his only helpers are a tenant couple who have fled from the landowner and are now fugitives.  Introduced to him by the supportive local pastor Eklund (Gustav Lindh), Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) and his wife Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) become Kahlen’s steward and housekeeper—until Schinkel captures Johannes and tortures him to death as entertainment at a ball where Kahlen must helplessly watch the execution.

Kahlen’s presence at the ball is the result of an invitation not from Schinkel but from his cousin Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), whom her debt-ridden father has sent north to marry the wealthy lord.  But Helene resists committing to the marriage, and is attracted to Kahlen instead.  And though Ann Barbara threatens to leave Kahlen’s employ when she learns of Johannes’ death, she relents and remains, becoming something more than a housekeeper to him and a surrogate mother to Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a dark-skinned Tater girl who flees to Kahlen’s home, and whom he protects even when German colonists dispatched to Kahlen by the king, considering her unlucky, demand that he send her away.

When Schinkel’s schemes to force Kahlen to leave descend to violence against the settlers, the ex-soldier uses his military training to retaliate, but doing so brings him into conflict with the law, giving Schinkel a legal excuse to destroy him.  It’s only the intervention of Ann Barbara and Helene that saves him from Johannes’ fate, though it means disaster for Ann Barbara in the process.

The film ends with a coda set some years later, bringing royal recognition to Kahlen for his achievements and a handsome Tater suitor (Hans Christian Lundgren) for the grown-up Anmai Mus (now played by Laura Bilgrau).  But Kahlen receives information from long-time friend Trappaud (Jacob Lohmann) of Ann Barbara’s dire future that tests his determination to continue his work in the heath as well as his loyalty to the crown. 

In many respects “The Promised Land” has the structure of a classic Hollywood Western, an archetypal tale of a newcomer whose arrival brings reprisal from the local landowner—a typical farmer versus rancher scenario.  But as captured by production designer Jette Lehmann, costumer Kicki Ilander and cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk, the striking locations and period timeframe give it a distinctive look, and though it moves at a stately pace, Arcel and editor Olivier Bugge Coutté ensure that it doesn’t drag.  Dan Romer’s score adds to the atmosphere as well.                        

As might be expected, the formidable Mikkelsen anchors the film with a performance of dour intensity, projecting Kahlen’s indomitability and refusal to buckle under to Schinkel, whom the sneering Bennebjerg makes a villain you’ll love to hate.  Collin, Hagberg and Thorp draw sharp contrasts as the very different females in Kahlen’s life, and among the uniformly capable supporting cast scrawny Lindh cuts an especially memorable figure, while Lohmann provides some welcome comic relief as the ever-complaining Trappaud. 

“The Promised Land” should definitely not be taken as history; it’s unabashedly a historically-based romantic drama that uses old-fashioned tropes and inventions to contrive a classic tale of grit against privilege.  If taken in the right spirit, it will prove immensely satisfying.