The Promised Land (dir. Nikolaj Arcel)
By: Adam Freed
The unrelenting tundra that is Denmark’s Heath has betrayed those who have sought to tame it for thousands of years. The endless landscape of rocky craig has long lured potential settlers into its presence with an abundance of promise, yet resists fertility with the stubbornness of a mule. It is on this barren land and against the laws of agricultural precedence that Ludvig von Kahlen plots his destiny to prove that what even Danish royalty has deemed impossible, can indeed be achieved with a little knowledge and an abundance of steadfastness. Armed with Danish acting superstar Mads Mikkelsen, writer and director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) unveils The Promised Land, the first great theatrical release of 2024.
Arcel’s 18th century action drama positions Mads Mikkelsen‘s von Kahlen in opposition to a triumvirate of antagonistic forces. Occupying the lion's share of villainous screen time within The Promised Land is the silver spoon birthright landowner Frederick De Shinkel, played to sadistic perfection by Copenhagen native Simon Bennebjerg. De Shinkel becomes an increasingly menacing thorn in von Kahlen’s side as settling the Danish Heath represents a potentially lucrative ambition for both men. The brutal inhumanity with which De Shinkel rules his land feels slightly one note, yet provides enough fuel to the film's desire to stoke the fires of revenge within its audience. The less obvious and more subtly interesting conflicts lurking in the shadows of The Promised Land are the intriguing challenges faced by Mikkelsen’s character both within himself and against an unrelenting natural landscape. Arcel’s reliance on human conflict loyally serves the film’s tightly wound plot, but it is the faceless treachery of both land and weather that loom as least conquerable of the trilogy of tormentors. Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) is so supremely adept at wearing the weight of oppression upon his face that even the invisible forces acting upon him are reflected with an appropriately connectable grimace.
The three headed monster that Mikkelsen’s von Kahlen must slay bears for an entertaining and thought-provoking parable of one’s accomplishment against all odds. Rendered gorgeously through the cinematography of Rasmus Vidabæk, the film paints the baron wilds of Denmark in a multitude of rotationally glorious seasonal hues. In juxtaposition to the harsh realities of the Danish frontier are the gorgeously landscaped gardens and tastefully rendered aristocratic castles, looming as aspirational reminders as to the potential fruits of Ludvig von Kahlen’s labors. Ultimately, The Promised Land proves a worthy tale of ambition to rise above one’s station as it balances the navigation of conflict with the layering of thematic messaging with ease. Nikolaj Arcel and Mads Mikkelsen have proven to be a Danish artistic force capable of taming even the most unrelenting of cinematic landscapes.
Target Score: 8/10 The Promised Land is an 18th century tale of one man’s desire to conquer Denmark’s harshest terrain and in so doing reverse centuries of low birthright. What becomes of this working class parable is certainly a story of Scandinavian history that translates effectively for contemporary audiences. Mads Mikkelsen once again proves a master of his trade as the layered protagonist in Nikolaj Arcel’s memorable film.