The Promised Land Image

The Promised Land

By Calan Panchoo | September 18, 2023

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! The original title for Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land is Bastarden, translated as “The Bastard” from Danish. It’s a fitting title in that the writer-director’s second feature with the renowned Mads Mikkelsen is quite a brutal experience. The movie stares headlong at heavy topics such as born rank and man’s contest with nature. However, none of this should suggest that the English title has lost something. On rather rare occasions, the Biblically allusive title reveals another side of the picture — the bending of one’s will toward destiny. With this most primordial of themes, Arcel and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen have constructed a piece of cinema that is not just arresting but wholly resplendent.

Ludvig von Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) is the bastard son of a maid and a nobleman who has overcome his low rank to become a successful army captain. Desiring to seize a noble title himself, the self-possessed Kahlen commits to establishing a settlement in the wild heath, an expanse of desolate wilderness. However, he soon runs afoul of Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a wealthy landowner who refuses to share land or profit.

There is a noticeable vein of the mid-century adventure running throughout The Promised Land in both tone and aesthetics. The visuals are molded in the style of bygone epics, such as The Searchers and Lawrence of Arabia. The latter clearly is a direct influence on Arcel. Wide lens cinematography is used in almost every scene, rendering Denmark’s rugged heath in cruel, captivating frames that bleed with foreboding. This makes the wilderness itself a type of omniscience, always present and observing.

Desiring to seize a noble title himself, the self-possessed Kahlen commits to establishing a settlement in the wild heath…”

As anticipated, Mikkelsen turns in a powerful performance throughout The Promised Land. He is a man so stoically committed to his goal that his presence seems to ignite the ire of the ever-present heath. However, as the supporting character Ana Barbara, Amanda Collin is of comparable force, acting as a woman equally as unflinching but also palpably feminine in a time of tremendous hardship. The two are rounded out by the splendidly maniacal yet effervescent Bennebjerg, who teeters on the edge of cartoonish exaggeration but skillfully maintains believability throughout.

However, it is in the orchestration of these characters that Arcel finds his most tremendous success. Though seemingly straightforward, the plot continually offers organic turns, allowing the entire cast to play wonderfully off the singular Mikkelsen. In these surprise moments, the dramatic adventure feels most like an adventure — generating moments of genuine depravity but also earnestness in its purest forms.

The only setback is a slightly off-kilter third act that too quickly and too tidily ties up loose ends. And yet, this misstep is buffered by a well-hewn narrative context that maintains the emotional tone without ever veering into oversentimentality. Indeed, Arcel and Mikkelsen have struck a deeply human chord with The Promised Land. It is a tale of undoubted savagery but also one of hope in all its divine illumination.

The Promised Land screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Promised Land (2023)

Directed: Nikolaj Arcel

Written: Nikolaj Arcel, Anders Thomas Jensen

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Gustav Lindh, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Simon Bennebjerg, Søren Malling, Morten Hee Andersen, etc.

Movie score: 8.5/10

The Promised Land Image

"…offers organic turns, allowing the entire cast to play wonderfully off the singular Mikkelsen."

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