The Promised Land

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Mads Mikkelsen is a reassuring presence in any movie and is the making of The Promised Land (Bastarden in the original Danish), a movie that promises much and eventually delivers too much, but stylishly, always stylishly.

He plays Ludvig Kahlen, an 18th-century ex-soldier who petitions the Danish king to allow him to cultivate the Jutland Heath, a vast expanse of the country on which nothing, a preamble tells us, will grow.

His petition is accepted by the courtiers who act as an intermediary between the Kahlen and the monarch. It’s one of the drunken king’s crazy schemes, this turning of the wilderness into farmland, and the courtiers reason that by agreeing to Kahlen’s wishes they earn the favour of the king. If he fails, they can at least shrug and say “well, we tried”.

So off the flinty, taciturn ex-captain goes to Jutland, recruiting a gaggle of desperadoes and outsiders en route, to scratch away at the dry, barren soil and attempt to make it fruitful, little realising that a local landowner, Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), views the entirety of Jutland Heath as his by right.

It’s a classic western in plot – the decent homesteader (Kahlen) and the rascally rancher (De Schinkel), with De Schinkel wheeling out all the various ploys we’ve all seen in many a western. He cajoles and flatters, attempts bribery and trickery before the gloves finally come off and he declares war, using a gang of ex-convicts to fight his battle for him.

In moves lifted from John Wayne movies, co-writers Nikolaj Arcel (who also directs) and Anders Thomas Jensen introduce a cute kid (Melina Hagberg) and a possible love interest (Amanda Collin), plus another love interest in the shape of Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), the cousin of De Schinkel who is betrothed to him but would far rather taste the salty tang of a man with rough hands.

De Schinkel with rifle in hand
Simon Bennebjerg as Frederik De Schinkel

So, a western with the occasional powdered wig, plus a lot of action out on the blasted heath where Kahlen and gang are trying to clear enough heather and brush away so they can plant the one thing that will grow in this region, about which Kahlen is intensely secretive.

Arcel and his DP Rasmus Videbæk make this a painterly, picturesque affair – by which I mean it looks fabulous whether it suits the mood or not. Mikkelsen is a fabulously dour watch throughout, with his usual spare acting style pared even further back till there’s almost nothing there. Not flickers, just suggestions of flickers.

The acting all works though. Bennebjerg is particularly hissable as the vainglorious entitled De Schinken (it was plain old Schinken but he’s added the ennobling “De” on his own say-so). Collin has the face of the ruggedly beautiful frontierswoman. Hagberg is cute and earns our sympathy as the gypsy child Kahlen eventually takes in as an ad-hoc daughter, he himself understanding what bad parenting is about (the original title translates as The Bastard).

It’s nicely old fashioned in many respects. John Ford would recognise it – interestingly, co-writer Jensen’s vastly underrated The Salvation was also very Fordian – and it comes with an old-school idea about humanity’s god-given duty to cultivate, to nurture, to replace barbarism with enlightenment, bring order to a chaotic world, to be Adam and Eve in an Eden of its own making.

This film had me at hello and still held me at the midway point but had lost me by the end. It is an elemental story but it becomes insistently so. In spite of the tub-thumping it does keep the tension going to the end. If it were a Hollywood movie, Kahlen would be destined to succeed, surely, by pulling off an American Dream win against the Man (De Schinken). But this is Europe and darkness is acceptable, possibly mandatory. That tension – will he/won’t he? – gives this film its (very good looking) legs.

The Promised Land (Bastarden) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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