The Promised Land

After twenty-five years of service in the German Army, low born Captain Ludvig von Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) aims to secure status and a title by building a settlement on a barren heath, a dream of the Danish King’s.  The royal court scoffs at him, but when von Kahlen offers to fund the project with his own pension, they’ve got nothing to lose.  Von Kahlen, however, will have plenty when his initial success challenges the power of a sadistic aristocrat, Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg, "The Pact"), in “The Promised Land.”

Laura's Review: A-

Cowriter (with Anders Thomas Jensen)/director Nikolaj Arcel ("A Royal Affair") adapts Ida Jessen's book 'The Captain and Ann Barbara,' a fictional account of a true historical event.  This is an old fashioned epic spiked with modern ideas about racism and class, its hero made a better man by witnessing the evil perpetrated by his villainous foe.

Von Kahlen has his work cut out for him, but his plan to grow potatoes is a smart one, a crop that can withstand harsh conditions.  The man we meet is single-minded, accepting the labor of runaway workers Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) and his wife Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) for room and board, his goal initially uncomplicated by compassion.  He does hide their presence from De Schinkel’s men when they come searching, the indentured couple having fled the aristocrat’s barbarism and when De Schinkel invites him to dinner at his grand manse, he soon learns the gesture is but a cover for a threat, the man asserting that the wild heath is his.  De Schinkel also believes his cousin, Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp, "Sick of Myself"), is his, but she clearly detests him, instead turning her attentions toward von Kahlen, inviting him to the harvest ball.

The other obstacle von Kahlen must deal with are the Romani.  He’s barely established when young Anmai Mus (Hagberg Melina) is used as a lure to rob him, the little girl later stealing a chicken.  Then the unspeakable happens, De Schinkel’s men arrive, drag Johannes out of von Kahlen’s house and torture him to death with boiling water.  Slowly, von Kahlen, the bereaved Ann Barbara and Anmai Mus form a family, enduring incredible hardship to produce a sack of potatoes to send to the King.  He sends settlers and supplies in return, his support of the illegitimate captain enraging De Schinkel even more.

‘Life is chaos,’ De Schinkel tells von Kahlen and as their rivalry heats up and his methods become more brutal, we witness a shift in the captain’s priorities.  Mikkelsen’s stoic mien makes him the perfect actor for this part of a man who will toil in the dirt or go head to head with a rich madman at a fancy ball and whose emotional awakening is hard won and all the more moving for it.  Collin, too, traverses a large character arc, her initial resentment of the man she labors for slowly turning to respect then a selfless love.  Bennebjerg is suitably hissable, debauched and insane.  Young Melina’s urchin grows on us just as she does Von Kahlen, the role going to Laura Bilgrau Eskild-Jensen as an adult.

Rasmus Videbæk’s (“A Royal Affair”) location shooting, Jette Lehmann’s (“Melancholia”) production design and Kicki Ilander’s costume design create the reality of mid 1700’s Jutland, from the court to the coast, von Kahlen’s fortunes evident in his landscape.  “The Promised Land,” Denmark’s shortlisted (but sadly, not nominated in a very competitive category) submission for the International Oscar is a great film about personal values trumping lofty ambitions.          

Robin's Review: B+

In 1755, Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikellsen) returned to his Danish homeland after retiring from the German army with just a meager pension. He requests and receives a royal decree to cultivate and settle the barren and rugged moors of Jutland and become a noble lord of “The Promised Land.”

Kahlen may have retired on a small pension but has big ideas to become landed gentry. He proposes to cultivate the hostile, infertile soil in Jutland and plant the new crop – potatoes – and earn the right to rule that land. But, there is a problem with his plans – the local land baron, Frederick de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who demands that the land is his, alone. This begins a major battle of wills that does not end happily.

Director Nicolaj Arcel directs the adaptation of Ida Jessen’s novel, The Captain and Ann Barbara, and puts us smack in the middle of the harsh Jutland countryside and the even harsher conflict that builds with Schinkel.

The conflict gets complicated when Kahlen steals away two of the baron’s indentured workers, Johannes (Morton Lee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin). They become the subject of the Schinkel’s hunt to force them back to his oppressive fold. Kahlen, of course, defies the man who wants to keep all the land for his fiefdom.

Arcel does a masterful job of creating the harsh environment and the arduous task of trying to settle and cultivate an unforgiving land. The constant cold winds chilled my bones as I watched Kahlen try to do the impossible, showcasing the man’s stubborn will to succeed. Mikkelsen, as usual, shows his skill developing his taciturn character fully and plays well off of Amanda Collin’s Ann.

The production works on all levels, from costume and production design to the cold-toned and clear cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek, making the Czech Republic stand in convincingly for the wilds of Danish Jutland. So, if you are looking for a good period piece about a David versus Goliath battle of wills, “The Promised Land” fits that bill of fare quite well.

After a qualifying run in 2023, Magnolia Pictures releases "The Promised Land" in theaters on 2/2/24.  Click here for theater information.