The Promised Land

The Promised Land
The Promised Land
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Hollywood blockbusters may be becoming longer (or maybe bloated), but that doesn’t mean there have been many good epics recently. Just because a Marvel or Mission: Impossible movie is 150 minutes long, it isn’t automatically an epic. The Promised Land — a new Danish film by director Nikolaj Arcel — is only 127 minutes, but it feels more epic in scope than most big studio pictures today. With its stubborn hero, vast landscapes, large supporting cast, dreamily romantic subplots and lengthy span of time, The Promised Land is closer to David Lean’s historical popcorn epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) than an international arthouse film.

At the same time, Arcel’s film is culturally specific, deeply Danish and well-rooted in 18th century monarchic absolutism — a period that he and his star here Mads Mikkelsen also explored in their 2012 film A Royal Affair. It looks at a time when feudalism was turning into capitalism and people were growing disillusioned with the hierarchies of nobility. The movie begins in 1755 with a retired soldier wanting to build a homestead on the notorious Jutland moorlands — an uninhabitable expanse that the monarchy had hoped would yield crops and settlements.

By the time Captain Ludvig Kahlen retires from military service, it’s generally accepted that nobody can grow anything there. He uses his pension and convinces the royal court to let him build on the Jutland and cultivate it; if successful he will be granted a title of nobility along with funds and assistance from the state. At first they laugh him out of the room — what have they got to lose? They think he’s doomed to fail anyway — but little do they know that Kahlen has brought back with him from abroad a unique food which can grow in even the harshest of conditions — the potato. So begins Ludvig Kahlen’s harsh, painful attempts at starting a new life.

Captain Kahlen goes to the desolate Jutland with all his belongings and engages in an extended duel with the soil. Nature and all its elements are beautifully captured by cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk, who creates soaring visuals of the Jutland throughout, along with some phenomenal closeups; every landscape is a face, and every face a landscape. Through rain and cold he checks for water sources, digs into the ground and builds a home for himself. He befriends a priest at a local village (tenderly played by Gustav Lindh), who supplies him with two runaway servants who have escaped the cruel clutches of a local magistrate named Frederik Schinkel (played with delicious evil by Simon Bennebjerg).

It’s this magistrate who — along with nature itself — becomes Kahlen’s greatest enemy. Despite Kahlen’s paperwork, Schinkel (who insists people refer to him as “de Schinkel” with humorous pomposity) claims to own the Jutland secretly fearing the loss of his control if settlements develop there and if Kahlen becomes competing nobility.

Schinkel embodies nihilistic hedonism, telling Kahlen that chaos reigns as the only force in the universe. Kahlen believes fervently in meritocracy — he thinks if he works hard he will honestly climb aristocratic hierarchy and succeed in life. But Schinkel maliciously reminds him that wherever there is power, there is no meritocracy — “the people at the top have kicked down behind them,” he says.

Kahlen is in the Jutland and advances with the escaped servants and the priest, but every step they make is fought by Schinkel. He has tunnel vision, only focusing on one thing and refusing to let anyone get in his way. In a dishonest world he can be an honest man, but Kahlen is also ridiculously self-centered and will risk others’ lives to achieve what he wants. More people get drawn into it — a band of Romani travelers, frightened serfs, arriving settlers, a young gypsy child he basically adopts — until there’s nobody left who isn’t involved. Like those old Hollywood epics, there’s romance, action, drama, tragedy; it’s about one person and their moment in history.

Captain Ludwig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) does this thing with his eyes. He doesn’t speak much at all really; we learn about him through how he carries himself or looks away or gives something up when you know he wants to keep it inside forever. Mikkelsen is adept at this kind of storytelling. His strange brutal beauty becomes believable for two hours; first he looks like a soldier and then maybe a farmer who could have been anything else if the circumstances had been different — somewhere deep inside him is still that desperate man longing for honor and nobility as seen by others. He’s cold and determined but also deeply moral – although I suspect even this understanding changes over time as things happen before our eyes.

What I admire most about Mikkelsen’s performance here is that it takes the haughty charm of his titular Hannibal character (which worked so well for TV audiences) mixed with the quiet dignity from films like The Hunt (where it was used sparingly) while embracing some physicality seen in movies such as Pusher (though never quite this much). All three elements come together beautifully creating an ethically ambiguous man whom we are meant to love anyway because who else can save us now? In other words, every word means something when he speaks them and his movements tell us more than words ever could – this is what makes the film great. Of course, none of it happened like that in real life but at least they tried to make it exciting for people who want things to happen quickly on screen. If you need things to be like they were then don’t watch.

Bennebjerg as Schinkel should not go unmentioned either — there are deranged individuals among us all but what sets him apart? He hates everyone equally! There’s also an idea behind all this though; power corrupts absolutely and some people just love being bad even if it hurts themselves too. The guy thinks women are weak (despite evidence), kills anyone who gets in his way (or for fun), eats until he can’t move anymore (always stealing food), lies about everything (even when telling the truth would have been easier) steals everything that isn’t nailed down (and takes those too) — basically one nasty piece of work whose only rival might be Trump himself. But what I enjoy most about Bennebjerg’s performance here is how pathetic he makes him seem while still being terrifyingly evil: a spoiled brat with no future except misery because eventually someone stronger than himself will come along and slap him silly or worse.

Besides being a magnificent popcorn flick, The Promised Land offers a message which remains relevant today more so than ever before. Kahlen has morals but loses his humanity as he continues chasing after success; however poor treated upper class man wants become part upper class itself rather fight against system that oppresses him. By believing social hierarchy and upholding nobility ideals Kahlen fights become what he despises thus resembles leftist trying rise through ranks within capitalist society

According to director Nikolaj Arcel, who spoke with MovieWeb about the film, The Promised Land really touches on this idea. “The most important thing for me,” he said, “thematically, was that you really have to be careful how much time in your life you spend trying to get things.” “If all you’re about is getting stuff done,” continued Arcel, “then you won’t succeed. You’re not going to kind of win at what life is truly all about. And that’s what I want people to think about — He’s so near losing everything that matters most because he’s so single-mindedly ambitious and driven by just one goal.”

It’ll show you what’s important — in the funniest way possible! Magnolia Pictures’ The Promised Land is currently playing in theaters now, but check out our interview below with Arcel!

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