The virtues of Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s new feature, The Promised Land, are those of old-school Hollywood studio pictures. The film is scrupulously well-constructed in the narrative sense — its main characters and conflicts are cleanly established within the first 10 minutes. It moves along at a steady pace that does not take the audience’s attention for granted over a two-hour runtime. It’s also well-photographed, well-acted by a cast of professionals, and well-appointed in its period detail. It would seem almost churlish to fault a film that, by all accounts, is a shining exemplar of the old adage, “they don’t make them like this anymore” — and yet we must. For all its notable merits, The Promised Land is also staggeringly conventional, devoid of novelty and surprise, and undistinguished in its anonymous competence. It doesn’t offer any deeper level of engagement or edification, beyond the surface-level pleasure of reasonably diverting viewers for two hours, and any interest it provides is ultimately not very different from the “content” spewed out by streaming services — only this is a European arthouse production and so might garner knee-jerk, unearned esteem.
Arcel’s film is set in 1755 in the Kingdom of Denmark, during which the northern regions of Jutland are a barren heath and the land has defeated even the most seasoned farmers that have attempted to cultivate it. A handsome allowance and the title of baron await any man who can successfully grow produce there, and taking up the challenge is recently retired army officer Ludvig von Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen). He’s poor, of low birth, and could use the upgrade. Upon relocating there, Ludvig soon assembles a family of misfits consisting of a peasant woman, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), a young Roma girl (Melina Hagberg), and a local priest, Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh, most recognizable for Robert Eggers’ The Northman). The group make considerable agricultural progress, but soon run headfirst into and afoul of local landowner Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who covets the land himself and is afraid he’d lose his influence and standing in the region were von Kahlen to be successful. Consequently, he concocts all manner of villainy and stratagems to thwart Kahlen and his makeshift family.
Establishing credible high stakes necessitates creating a formidable villain, but Arcel overeggs the pudding by giving us an antagonist of superhero-franchise proportions. In fact, Thanos is afforded more nuance and humanity than Bennebjerg’s cackling, deranged supervillain. It’s no fault of Bennebjerg, who is undeniably committed and even charismatic here, but his cartoonish characterization lays bare the story’s artifice and reminds viewers that they are watching manufactured conflict — something engineered by overzealous writers more than anything that might reasonably transpire in real life. Which is ironic, given that at least some of the figures and events present in The Promised Land are historical ones. Kahlen and Schinkel were real people, and the former did relocate to Jutland to try his luck. But everything else has been freely imagined by novelist Ida Jessen, whose book, The Captain and Ann Barbara offers the source material for The Promised Land. (The book is not yet available in an English translation, which makes it difficult for this critic to determine if the flattened characters are native to it or are a result of the adaptation from Arcel and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen.) It’s not a great sign that Arcel expressed regrets about the villain’s portrayal and posited that he might have thrown out the baby with the bath water during the rigorous editing process that saw him whittle down a 210-minute first cut to the two-hour runtime of the finished version.
For all the film’s struggles, the well-assembled cast contribute worthwhile performances with the material they’re afforded. Mikkelsen, with his famously impassive face and thin, pursed lips, effortlessly carries the picture; even while playing a low-born peasant, he retains a movie-star charisma and natural air of imperious hauteur. Lindh and Morten Hee Andersen (as Ann Barbara’s husband) both also make an impression in their smaller supporting roles, while Collin, ostensibly the female lead, is unfortunately saddled with an underwritten character, though she does at least end on solid footing in the film’s denouement. And Bennebjerg, looking distractingly like a Scandinavian Matt Smith, exudes genuine talent even through all the hammy mustache-twirling he’s asked to execute.
Elsewhere, the film is being styled as a David Lean-type “epic,” though that seems a stretch. There are hardly any scenes that boast upwards of 30 people in the frame, and the story and execution don’t offer much that would convince of such ambition; after all, the film had a budget of $8 million, perhaps expensive for a Danish production, but within the price range of a typical Sundance indie. The Promised Land does offer marginal interest owing to its niche historical setting, the details of which range from the fact that potatoes weren’t available in Denmark in the 1750s to the dark-skinned Roma people being believed to bring bad luck for farming endeavors. But for most, the chief reason to engage with The Promised Land will be to ride the rise and fall of its dramatic arc. To this end, Arcel said he wanted to create the feeling of reading a novel, and he has certainly achieved that — only it functions more as one of those ephemeral quickies that are read once to kill time, and then forgotten forever.
DIRECTOR: Nikolaj Arcel; CAST: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Gustav Lindh; DISTRIBUTOR: Magnolia Pictures; IN THEATERS: February 2; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 7 min.
Originally published as part of San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2.