The Promised Land is a true marvel by Mads Mikkelsen — if you have a strong stomach

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Just like its plot, the name of Mads Mikkelsen’s new saga of stubbornness has had its own journey.

Originally taken from the Danish novel The Captain and Ann Barbara by Ida Jessen, the story of an aging military captain’s attempt to farm an arid region was given the working title Land of the King — a direct reference to the story, and a title that it still bears internationally.

Soon after, this was replaced by more evocative, slightly mythical text. The promised land for North American audiences. Even so, you’ll see a much simpler sentence in the opening credits.

No matter what language you watch it in, you’ll be greeted by a single word, etched entirely on the screen: Bastard. Literal translation? The bastard.

Here, this name refers to the background of our main character, Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen), English-speaking audiences will have no trouble associating this epithet with almost every grizzled and grimy face that appears on screen.

WATCH | Trailer for The Promised Land:

This is because the characters The promised land (released in theaters on February 9 in Toronto and Vancouver, February 16 in Montreal and Ottawa) have about as much sweetness as the setting. But as he zigzags between the burning sand, the blowing snow and the few blood-splattered orphans, he transforms into a kind of austere hope that justifies facing the cold.

The plot is loosely adapted from the story, although supported by more liberties than even Ridley Scott’s recent Napoleon. And like TerrorAn ahistorical account of the unknown horrors experienced by the lost crews of the Franklin expedition, Jessen’s novel supplements the few known facts of a poorly documented period with well-researched fiction.

Here, in the mid-1700s, Kahlen exiled himself to the isolated moors of Denmark, a lawless and uncultivated wilderness that decades of dedicated men had failed to make suitable for agriculture. Denied a royal title due to the unfortunate circumstances of his birth (hence the bastard reference), Kahlen is broke after spending years in the army trying in vain to earn his birthright.

But since transforming the moor into a fertile colony is one of the king’s pet projects, Kahlen sees in it both his redemption and his destiny – a destiny that he will achieve by any means and by the sheer force of his will.

There’s only one problem: the heather sucks.

A man holding a pistol crouches in front of a horse and a tied horse.  Behind him is a misty field filled with shrubs.
Mads Mikkelsen appears as Ludvig Kahlen, the bankrupt military captain who attempts to farm Danish heather. (Henrik Ohsten/Magnolia Photos)

“There is nothing for shade, nothing for shelter. And the sky is cruel. It sends heat that dries up the depths of the earth. It sends frost in July. It rains fish and worms which eat every green shoot, then burrow away.” into the earth, only to emerge as red beetles that consume even the roots of the heather,” reads Jessen’s book.

“It’s raining blood.”

In a interview with the Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter and director Nikolaj Arcel said he aimed more for fidelity to Jessen’s text than historical accuracy, and it shows. It uses much of the two-hour-plus runtime to build up the bleak Cormac McCarthy pessimism of Jessen’s writing – at least at first.

No heroes

In what begins as a sort of parable about how power and class structures breed indifference, Kahlen is initially ignored and pushed aside by the aristocracy: they let him go towards what they assume be his death. They give him no support, no money and even refrain from informing the king of what Kahlen is trying to do for his homeland.

When Kahlen arrives, he’s no hero either. Played brutally (and brilliantly) by Mikkelsen, Kahlen manipulates a couple into working for him for free, despite them illegally fleeing a local nobleman. Meanwhile, this nobleman, Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) spends his time alternately emotionally torturing a cousin who he actively forces to marry him or literally torturing and killing the servants trapped in his isolated mansion.

From there it only gets worse. As Kahlen’s growing success threatens to topple Schinkel’s mini-empire, his Disney-style villainies evolve into a more terrifying amalgam of GladiatorCommodious, crazy about wine, and Game Of Thrones“The mischievous sociopath Ramsay Bolton. Or, perhaps more accurately, the real historical psychopath Gilles de Rais, mixed with CybersixIt’s the goblin boy José von Reichter, smirking.

A man on the left is lying on an iron gate, while a man holds him by the hair.  On the right, a man is also lying on the grate and looking at the man on the left.
Mikkelsen, left, appears as Ludvig Kahlen in a scene with Simon Bennebjerg as the noble madman Frederik De Schinkel in The Promised Land. (Henrik Ohsten/Magnolia Photos)

This all seems like a surprisingly dark tone – especially from the same writer who gave us Antboy – but the story is not limited to the depravity of the human soul. The promised land can be considered a sort of sister film to the ubiquitous Desperate Pelle the Conquerorthe best international feature film of 1989 about a poor father and son forced to work almost to death on a Danish farm.

But while this film strives to showcase the resilience of the human spirit by showing its characters surviving one trauma after another, The promised land eventually moves from its incessant parade of misery to the question of why we should suffer in the first place.

A unifying message

It is the redemption of The promised land, both for its characters and its ultimate story – even if it is not a masterpiece. Even with its beautiful cinematography and strong performances, something this violent, sad, and long will struggle to keep the audience from cowering or yawning from start to finish.

But Arcel, frightened by Hollywood’s board-driven style of production, which resulted in his Dark Tower fiasco, manages to extract a message from the mud. Instead of dripping blood on a stone, maybe ask yourself if there is anything you could appreciate more than a bruised hand full of blood.

This is coupled with the fact that Mikkelsen clearly thrives in the kind of role he only goes to Hollywood to finance. His performance here is as brooding, nuanced and brutal as The rise of Valhalla — with the same contradictory traits of a clearly violent man softened by the unfortunate child found abandoned on his doorstep.

The promised land is a little more accessible and a little more violent than this film – if only slightly. A clearer plot, artistic vision, and character arc also lead to an experience that’s a little easier to digest.

That is, except for that scene near the end. You’ll know it when you see it.

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