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Mads Mikkelsen cultivates an old-school cinematic spectacle with ‘The Promised Land’

He plays a man determined to earn noble status by farming the untenable, harsh land of Denmark’s Jutland heath

Mads Mikkelsen in "The Promised Land."Magnolia Pictures//Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa

The Danish title of director Nikolaj Arcel’s historical drama, “The Promised Land,” is “Bastarden,” which is clearly not a direct translation. Sometimes when films are rechristened for international markets, their new titles don’t make much sense. Here, however, the titles are complementary. The original describes society’s view of the protagonist, Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen), a man born to a servant and the nobleman who raped her; the English version speaks to the goal Kahlen hopes to achieve that will relieve him of such an ignoble slur.

The year is 1755. After spending 25 years in the service, where he slowly ascended to the rank of captain, Kahlen proposes his servitude to the king of Denmark by farming the harsh earth of the Jutland heath. For decades, kings of Denmark have tried to turn a profit on this land. His suggestion is met with derisive laughter, for many a man has been defeated by land that refuses to give life to any vegetation. Kahlen’s request is denied because, as the film’s opening scroll tells us, “the soil is barren and the lands plagued by outlaws.”

“The heath cannot be tamed.”


When Kahlen offers to pay for this experiment out of his own pocket, he is given the go-ahead. The treasurers who approve the deal see it as a win-win proposition: The king will be happy that someone is trying to turn the heath into a profitable venture, and the government won’t have to pay the farmer for attempting this folly. If Kahlen is successful, he will be awarded an estate and a noble title that will cancel out his societal illegitimacy.

Mads Mikkelsen and Simon Bennebjerg in "The Promised Land."Magnolia Pictures//Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa

Kahlen is the type of single-minded hero epics are built around, specifically those that embark on a quixotic quest for glory and redemption. “The Promised Land” harkens back to the era of films like “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “Spartacus” (1960). Arcel and his cinematographer, Rasmus Videbæk, shoot Denmark’s landscape in breathtaking widescreen compositions, the camera gliding over various locations while Dan Romer’s sweeping score fills the speakers. Crowd scenes and interiors like the stately home of rich villain Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) receive a similar treatment.


At the center of this drama is Mikkelsen, an actor whose visage demands your attention even when he is simply staring off into space. His face has the gravitas of Morgan Freeman’s voice, especially in the closeups the director wisely employs to convey Kahlen’s steely, stoic determination. I could easily imagine John Ford or David Lean centering a film around this character and the actor who so boldly brings him to life.

Arcel and Mikkelsen previously collaborated on another historical piece, “A Royal Affair”(2012), which received an Oscar nomination for best international feature. As 2023′s submission from Denmark, “The Promised Land” failed to make Oscar’s list this year, which is surprising. This is the kind of large-scale production that voters usually nominate; it’s an old-fashioned tale filled with doomed lovers, crafty thieves, and over-the-top villainy.

The doomed lovers are Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) and his wife, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin). They are servants who have escaped the sadistic nobleman De Schinkel. When they are offered to Kahlen as workers, he begrudgingly takes them on despite the laws against harboring fugitives. Eriksen makes an early exit from the film — he’s used as an example of De Schinkel’s psychopathic cruelty — but his grieving widow stays on to help Kahlen. This isn’t a spoiler; the best-selling 2020 book by Ida Jessen that Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen based their screenplay on is called “The Captain and Ann Barbara.” Collin’s performance is as good, and as memorable, as Mikkelsen’s.


Amanda Collin in "The Promised Land."Henrik Ohsten/Magnolia Pictures

Melina Hagberg is also memorable as Anmai Mus, a ward of the aforementioned outlaws who plague the heath. Because of her darker skin, she is mistreated by her adopted family and ultimately seeks shelter with Kahlen in exchange for work.

“The Promised Land” gives us multiple scenes of Kahlen working the land in the hopes that his secret weapon, potatoes he imported from Germany, will earn him the glory he seeks. Since potatoes are known to grow in the harshest of circumstances, the vegetable becomes symbolic of Kahlen and his crew as they fight insurmountable odds and constant setbacks courtesy of De Schinkel, whose determination to destroy Kahlen is as stubborn as Kahlen’s desire to convert the heath.

Though the last third of the film feels rushed, and Bennebjerg’s performance hews dangerously close to mustache-twirling-villain territory, there is much to admire and enjoy here. Arcel has made the kind of cinematic spectacle Hollywood used to excel at, but doesn’t make anymore.



Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Written by Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen, based on the book “The Captain and Ann Barbara” by Ida Jessen. Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Melina Hagberg, Morten Hee Andersen. In Danish, subtitled. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square. 127 minutes. R (sadistic violence, brief nudity)


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.