Whether it’s part of film festival coverage or a streaming release, any movie starring Mads Mikkelsen (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) is, for me, a must-see. An actor who manages to transform an entire film with just his performance, although the duo Nikolaj Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen (The Dark Tower) is also more than enough reason to give The Promised Land a shot. An adaptation of Ida Jessen’s novel The Captain and Ann Barbara.
Arcel mentioned that this is the most personal project of his career, and it’s easy to understand why. The Promised Land is a profound character study on how dreams and ambitions gradually become dangerous obsessions if there’s nothing else of value in life. At heart, it’s a journey of self-discovery for Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen), a poor soldier from an unknown family with an intense desire for a wealthier, more honorable future. The protagonist puts all his dedication and fervent passion into being able to prove to the kingdom and its king that it’s possible to cultivate a land no one has ever managed to.
Kahlen initially finds himself in the position of sacrificing everything and everyone around him to achieve such nobility. Despite being a man with firm principles and values, Kahlen feels a certain need for validation, caring only about the success of his land until life inevitably throws obstacles in front of him. Unpredictability, chaos, and lack of control are part of human nature and the world, so looking at life in a materialistic manner is consequently equivalent to living an isolated life without love, respect, empathy, or affection.
The Promised Land Critique
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The Promised Land takes Kahlen on a voyage where the character learns to use his principles and values to love, care, and value what really makes life memorable, and regardless of the random complications that arise, happy. Mikkelsen delivers a subtly powerful performance. With minimal expressions, the actor conveys Kahlen’s conflicted feelings when dilemmas are placed before him, forcing the soldier to choose between his love for those around him and the dreams he fought so hard to make come true.
As he becomes more human, emotional, fatherly, a lover, and responsible for others, the more problems Kahlen needs to confront. Compassion is a strength, not a flaw, as proven by antagonist Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the supposed owner of the land who, like Kahlen, has individual desires for wealth. The parallelism between the two characters is evident and beautifully demonstrated. They share common traits, but what separates them is precisely the humanity that one carries in his chest and the other despises.
Amanda Collin (Raised by Wolves) is superb as Ann Barbara, a handmaiden refugee in the land of Kahlen after escaping Schinkel’s abusive hands – or “de Schinkel” as he endlessly reminds all who dare to forget he’s the one in power. The palpable chemistry between Mikkelsen and Collin contributes immensely to the violent third act, as well as justifies the shocking moments of torture that The Promised Land isn’t shy of showing. Final praise for young Melina Hagberg’s debut as Anmai Mus, who demonstrates surprising maturity for the experience she (doesn’t) have.
Technically, Rasmus Videbæk’s (12 Strong) cinematography and Dan Romer’s (Luca) score stand out. The former is able to capture the somber atmosphere of the darkest sequences, in addition to delivering night scenes that are both visible and realistic, including an uninterrupted take that will leave any cinephile dazzled. Romer’s music both subtly accompanies the unfolding plot and adds that epic layer to the many climaxes of The Promised Land. Kicki Ilander’s (Borg McEnroe) costume design also deserves awareness for the upcoming awards season.
It lacks greater narrative creativity and impact in its thematic messages. The Promised Land is by no means a never-before-seen story, containing a certain level of unnecessary redundancy. Despite holding a 127-minute runtime, it’s a slow, heavy viewing due to the predictable structure of its narrative, which will leave action-dependent viewers utterly bored. Fortunately, not everyone is like that…
The Promised Land is a profound character study of how personal ambitions and desires inevitably will fail without love, compassion, and everything else that makes us human. Accompanied by somber cinematography and an atmospheric score, the cast delivers outstanding performances, especially Mads Mikkelsen who utilizes all his experience to drive the story with a magnetic display. Heavy, predictable, and somewhat repetitive at times, but totally worth the ticket.