Mads Mikkelsen has proved time and again a master at playing quiet, rational, and seemingly harmless men who, when pushed, swiftly reveal themselves also to be skilled executioners; their pent-up rage does not bubble up so much as shoot out of them in sudden bursts of ultraviolence. Mikkelsen proves it once more in “The Promised Land,” the new period drama that reunites him with his “A Royal Affair” Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, and premieres in competition at the 80th Venice Film Festival this week.
A handsome historical drama featuring plenty of gorgeous gowns, powdered wigs, and bored aristocrats, the film is, however, an unusually earthy proposition where nature, in its most unmanicured and unwieldy form, plays a major role. The titular “Promised Land” is the wild heath of Jutland, where most of the film is set, an inhospitable territory in Denmark that has remained empty of people for as long as maps have been drawn, despite the King’s desire to tame, conquer, civilize (and tax) it. That is until former army captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) asks for official permission to give it a try. The mysterious man is so determined to realize this strange project that he accepts to do so with no funds from the royals he would essentially be working for, relying only on his meager army pension to buy the tools required and the food needed to survive.
Mikkelsen plays Kahlen as a man with a plan, a diligent and intelligent worker who searches for wet soil in the arid earth of the heath, alone and in all kinds of weather. He eventually finds some, but this is hardly the end of his problems. Barely has he set foot in the land that he finds himself facing a much tougher enemy than the Danish wilderness: Frederik de Schinkel, the only official ruler in the area for miles, is an arrogant young man who would rather oversee a land of worthless weeds alone than share the control of a fruitful territory with anyone. He claims the land to be his and orders Kahlen away. But the latter only obey one man, the King himself: he names the house he builds himself on the barren land “Kongenshus,” the King’s House. Throughout the film, De Schinkel does all he can to be a thorn in his side. Worse: he is a tenacious weed that only grows meaner the more Kahlen, the gentleman that he is, tries to ignore it.
But more interesting than the captain’s battle with the self-destructive, terribly unstable De Schinkel are the various other people who come into Kahlen’s life and who cannot so easily be categorized as good people or bad people — helpful hands or obstacles in his way. These are Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and her husband Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen), two workers on the run that the wannabe farmer employs — for mediocre wages — on the advice of the benevolent local priest (Gustav Lindh). There’s Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a Roma girl who steals food from him and is used as bait by the group of travelers she lives with. There are the German workers Kahlen eventually gets sent to help. And there is De Schinkel’s lovely cousin Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp). All of these people, in one way or another, expose our hero to a dilemma that sets his tolerant values and his desire to succeed at odds again and again. The runaway workers, it turns out, were escaping De Schinkel and his abusive behavior, a revelation that extinguished any hope of reconciliation between farmer and aristocrat. The travelers Anmai Mus lives with are good workers, but they abandon the farm when De Schinkel threatens them. Anmai Mus is a thief, something the uncompromising captain struggles to tolerate, but she is also a child, requiring affection, patience, and care of the kind Kahlen hasn’t planned to provide to anyone.
For this settler, to care for the fate of others is to compromise on his own. His goal, we learn early on, isn’t the farm but the title and estate he demands as a reward for his potential success. De Schinkel cruelly lays it all out in their first meeting: the noble farmer is, in fact, a “bastard,” a poor kid sent to the army at a young age by his father, the important man she worked for and who raped her. “My father used to do the same thing to my own bastard siblings,” De Schinkel says plainly, with a bluntness that almost feels like a dare. As if to purposely irk his visitor, he willingly admits to adding “De” to his surname just to sound more upper-class. Eventually, Kahlen will rise to his enemy’s taunts. But not before suffering a series of brutal setbacks, some natural and others of (De) Schinkel’s own design.
At most of these forks in the road, Kahlen makes the right decision — or rather, the one that we filmwatchers really hope he will make. At others, his desire to become part of a class that continually derides him seems to win over — the grass is always greener… But even then, we understand him: the niftily assembled script by Anders Thomas Jensen (writer and director of “Riders of Justice”) makes clear the implications of each choice for everyone involved. We are never sure whether Kahlen will follow his heart or plan, making for a gripping story unfolding most satisfyingly. The film’s very topical feminist and even anti-landlord themes do not feel shoehorned in but are simply part of an unassuming yet rich landscape. [B]