Review: The Promised Land
- VENICE 2023: Nikolaj Arcel’s 18th century-set drama is a moving tale of love, despair and hatred, which unfolds in the rugged landscape of the Danish heaths
Two opposing factions, an anti-hero, a hateful villain, a woman to protect and a desert landscape may all be familiar ingredients for a western flick. Yet Nikolaj Arcel’s new effort, titled The Promised Land [+see also:
film profile] and world-premiered in the main competition of this year’s Venice Film Festival, encapsulates these features typical of the genre to produce a more classical – in the best possible sense of the word – drama based on Ida Jessen’s novel The Captain and Ann Barbara, set in a rather under-explored historical and geographical context.
Penned by Arcel himself together with Anders Thomas Jensen (Riders of Justice [+see also:
interview: Anders Thomas Jensen
film profile]), The Promised Land begins in 1755, when a penniless captain called Ludvig Kahlen (played by Mads Mikkelsen) travels to the harsh Danish heaths in Jutland, aiming to build a royal colony, cultivate the land and ultimately receive a title of nobility. The local ruler, Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), is a merciless – and, to some extent, tragicomic – character, who tirelessly claims to be in possession of the heath and searches for one of his maids, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin). Ann Barbara and her husband Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) flee de Schinkel’s mansion and end up serving Kahlen, prompting the landowner’s immense thirst for revenge and desire to prevail over the captain, by any means and at any cost.
The battle is one-sided from the start, and Kahlen receives almost no support from the king. Surrounded by a desert landscape that seems impossible to cultivate, he is forced to sharpen his wits to find some way to hire or attract colonists and survive the winter.
The picture sports two main narrative components. On the one hand, we follow Ludvig’s efforts to build the colony in order to elevate his social standing and sustain the family he gradually builds around himself with Ann Barbara and Anmai Mus, a nomad child who has been abandoned by her parents, here tenderly and humorously portrayed by the young Hagberg Melina. On the other hand, we witness the family and the colony’s fight for survival, as they are victims of de Schinkel’s unstoppable plots and attacks.
Mikkelsen plays with the complexity of the Kahlen role, striking an excellent balance between his nature as a fierce soldier, his carnal instincts and his unexpected desire to act as a father figure, ultimately crafting a character that is hard to judge – a controversial master, yet a child of his time. Bennebjerg is the perfect villain: spoiled, violent and a psychopath, but also annoying and unintentionally ridiculous.
The last third of the picture, as the violence, tension and hatred start to mount, takes a more violent, western-like turn. It may all sound very “classical”, but it’s far from unoriginal or uninspired. They say that the devil is in the details, and here, the solid writing and performances are full of nuances and elements that imbue it with great emotional and psychological depth.
Aesthetically speaking, the picture is enriched by some stunning cinematography (courtesy of Rasmus Videbæk), which beautifully frames the passing of the seasons and the poorly lit interiors. Jette Lehmann’s production design is simple but effective, and the movie boasts a score that feels rather traditional, but which serves its purpose very well (composed by Dan Romer).
Photogallery 01/09/2023: Venice 2023 - The Promised Land
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