“The Promised Land” deserves a sexier title than “The Promised Land”: It’s hard to hear those well-worn words and not expect something as beige and starchy as the spuds grown on its titular terrain. It has one, in fact. The native Danish title for Nikolaj Arcel’s film translates as “The Bastard” — which has the advantage of applying, in different senses, to both its male principals, and rather better captures the spirit of this lavishly upholstered historical romp, which may pose nobly at points, but gradually reveals a heart of pure boys’-own hokum. Notionally rooted in historical fact, but embellished with storybook romance and flouncing cartoon villainy, this roundly enjoyable Venice competition entry finally owes all its residual gravitas (and at least half its considerable handsomeness) to the expressive woodcut visage of one Mads Mikkelsen.
Funny thing about that face, with its razored planes and coolly sloping brows: It’s one that Hollywood deems suitable only for the most acrid of bad guys, from the dapper young Hannibal Lecter to the time-traveling Nazi of the last “Indiana Jones” effort, whereas on home turf, the Dane gets to be the very picture of honorable alpha masculinity. That’s certainly the case here, where Mikkelsen plays the real-life 18th-century army captain Ludvig Kahlen, a stoic man’s man of fatherless, dirt-poor origins who defied the usual outlook for boys of his class bracket to rise through the military ranks on the strength of his tenacity and valor. Perhaps U.S. casting directors would swap him with the soft, puppy-faced Simon Bjenneberg, here a hoot as Kahlen’s irredeemably coal-souled aristocratic nemesis. Happily, Denmark trusts a sharp, carved angle.
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Also hard and rugged and forbiddingly beautiful? Denmark’s Jutland Heath, a vast, sprawling expanse of near-barren land depleted by Stone Age farmers, where only a rolling rug of mauve-brown heather survives its sandy soil. Introductory title cards explain an 18th-century government policy of inviting foreign settlers to cultivate the land, with little success. “The heath cannot be tamed,” reads the final one — a pretty irresistible opening salvo, practically begging the viewer to ask “Or can it?” as the imposingly upright Kahlen stomps onto the scene.
Having left the military, Kahlen applies for permission to build an agricultural settlement on the heath, demanding a noble title should he succeed. Scornful of this “presumptuous soldier in a flea-ridden uniform” and certain they won’t have to honor their half of the bargain, fatcat ministers grant his request; with the assistance of a motley crew of laborers, including married runaway servants Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen), Kahlen builds a rustic farmhouse and gets to work. Unbeknownst to his overlords, he has an idea for a resilient crop that might just grow in this hostile ground. It’s new, from Germany, and it’s going to be big: potatoes, they’re called. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
It’s a solid if back-breaking plan, and would proceed steadily enough if not for the unseemly envy of neighboring nobleman Frederik De Schinkel (Bjenneberg), a petty local despot who insists, despite Kahlen’s permission from the King, that this scrubby land belongs to him. Raging, irrational spite is a driving dramatic motive in Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay, adapted from Ida Jessen’s 2020 novel “The Captain and Ann Barbara”: Political particulars and conflicts of the heart are slowly sanded down to a pleasingly classical duel between pure good and pure evil, instigated when De Schinkel — Ann Barbara and Johannes’ former master — recaptures and gruesomely tortures the latter to death.
With the bereaved Ann Barbara staying on as Kahlen’s housekeeper as the other workers desert, and plucky Romani orphan Anmai Mus (Hagberg Melina) doggedly forcing her way into the household, a tender makeshift family unit takes shape. Were it not for the hysterically deranged lord across the moor sporadically tormenting the good farmer and slaughtering his help, “The Promised Land” would almost play out as a kind of Scandi “Little House on the Präirie,” with affecting everyday concerns of health, hearth and home countered by an escalating blood feud of far more outlandish fictional proportions.
Elsewhere, the top-heavy script also takes on matters of racial prejudice (as Kahlen’s German migrant workers superstitiously shun the dark-skinned Anmai Mus) and squeezes in a curtailed love triangle between Kahlen, Ann Barbara and De Schinkel’s gilded-caged cousin Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) — subplots that scarcely have room to breathe amid all the brawny, bloody back-and-forth. But it all just about hangs together, in part because Mikkelsen’s wounded, watchful performance bridges the film’s gung-ho heroics with its more soulful ambitions, and in part because Arcel — comfortably back on home turf as a director, after 2017’s drab Stephen King adaptation “The Dark Tower” — has a pleasingly sturdy, old-school feel for grand-scale period filmmaking.
Much like in Arcel’s 2012 costumer “A Royal Affair,” “The Promised Land” fills out its wide screen abundantly but not fussily. Shooting largely in the Czech Republic, Rasmus Videbæk sweeping, burnished lensing makes the heath a scraggly Nordic desert of year-round autumn tones, save for when snow is layered onto the scenic drudgery. The frilliest excesses of Jette Lehman’s rich production design and Kicki Ilander’s costumes seek only to highlight the showy grotesquerie of the rich; heroes are shot and clothed in shades of burlap and timber. One amusingly unsubtle composition pits Bjenneberg’s seated fop, a vision in pastel satin at a table bedecked with molded jellies, against Mikkelsen on literal horseback — good bastard towering over bad, highlighting that “The Promised Land” is finally nothing so much as a Danish Western, built on black-and-white moral binaries and a yee-haw sense of intrepid adventure.
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