Mads Mikkelsen has one of the all-time great “don’t fuck with me” countenances, and he radiates an imposing measure of stern, confident purpose in The Promised Land, Denmark’s submission for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. With a head of gray hair framing his stoic, lined visage, the Danish actor once again embodies a man with whom one does not casually trifle, and he’s the arresting nucleus of director Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of Ida Jessen’s novel The Captain and Ann Barbara about a military veteran with a dream that’s almost as grand as his will. A story about the titanic ambition and force of personality required to achieve the unthinkable, and the level-headed compassion and selflessness necessary to prevent self-destruction, it’s an old-school melodrama of pride, folly, and sacrifice that’s electrified by yet another superb turn from its leading man.
In 1755 Copenhagen, Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) visits with administrators at the Royal Treasury to discuss his wish to cultivate the Heath of Jutland, a vast stretch of land whose infertile soil has left it permanently barren and uninhabited. Having served the past 25 years in the German army, Ludvig sees this as his opportunity to please the king and, in doing so, to earn a noble title and the estate manor and servants that come with it. Though this is viewed as a doomed endeavor, he’s granted permission to try his hand at making something out of nothing on his own dime, and he accepts this deal, trekking out to the middle of nowhere and beginning to dig, with meager results. Even so, Mikkelsen’s face exudes neither disappointment nor frustration but simply implacable determination, and his ferociousness is further illustrated when a child’s cries for help lure him to a forest clearing and, upon being beset by a criminal, he swiftly shoots the man dead.
Ludvig soon grasps that he can’t conquer the heath on his own and, with the aid of local pastor Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh), he procures two servants in Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) and his wife Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), who fled their nasty master and are now considered law-breaking runaways. Johannes and Ann plan to stay only one season before moving onto more profitable pastures, and away from Ludvig, whom they dub “an odd master” for his severe demeanor, his demand that everything be exactingly arranged, and the fact that he carries himself like a “fancy nobleman” despite his ragged clothes and cracked hands. Nonetheless, they do as he asks and begin to trust him once the settlement (dubbed “King’s House” by Ludvig) is visited by an emissary of Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the area’s reigning landowner and Johannes and Ann’s former employer, and Ludvig conceals their presence while accepting an invitation to Frederik’s opulent Hald Manor.
During his visit, Ludvig catches the eye of Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who’s expected to rectify her family’s faltering financial standing by marrying Frederik, and has a testy conversation with the aristocrat, who believes that “God is chaos. Life is chaos.” Committed to achieving dominion over nature, Ludvig bristles at such a notion and, also, at Frederik, a petty tyrant who added the “de” in his surname to sound more highborn, and who revels in his power and his ability to cruelly exert it against anyone he pleases. Bennebjerg infuses this cretin with sniveling, insecure spitefulness that’s barely concealed beneath the man’s prim-and-proper exterior. Ludvig’s refusal to bow down before Frederik and abandon his undertaking—which Frederik views as a direct threat to his regional rule—is the catalyst for much of the forthcoming conflict, as is Ludvig’s decision to enlist in his cause the Tater outlaws who roam the land, including the aforementioned young girl, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg).
Ensuing treachery leaves Ludvig with few options and even fewer friends in his standoff with Frederik, although his ace in the hole is the secret crop he plans to plant in the heath: potatoes. The Promised Land is often most compelling as a portrait of rugged work and the perseverance and diligence it demands, with Mikkelsen’s character digging into, and patiently nurturing, the ground in the rain, snow and sun-dappled early morning. Aided by a no-frills script co-written by Riders of Justice’s Anders Thomas Jensen, director Arcel (who previously collaborated with Mikkelsen on 2012’s Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair) captures the inhospitable toughness of his milieu and its inhabitants, marked by wind that whips across the plains, wooden houses that creak from dawn until dusk, and interiors that afford scant warmth from the cold. Aside from a few god’s-eye aerial shots that faintly cast this tale in biblical terms, the filmmaker refuses to embellish his material with unnecessary flourishes, instead maintaining strict focus on the hardness of this 18th-century world and his resolute-to-the-point-of-foolhardy protagonist.
There are faint traces of The Outlaw Josey Wales in The Promised Land’s depiction of a weathered loner acquiring a surrogate family during the course of a personal mission, and Mikkelsen evokes Ludvig’s transformation with beautifully calibrated and minimalist gestures and expressions. Best known stateside for her primary role in HBO’s Raised by Wolves, Collin similarly does a lot with little overt effort, and Ann’s evolving bond with Ludvig eventually proves quite moving, strengthened as it is by their shared recognition that sometimes need outweighs desire—and then becomes indistinguishable from it. Moreover, their connection is rooted in their understanding that freedom, respect and honor are never given but must be arduously won, and that for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths, achieving happiness requires nothing short of heroic sacrifice.
It’s through his relationship with Anmai that Ludvig grasps the importance of putting others’ fates ahead of one’s own epic designs, and yet The Promised Land is never preachy. On the contrary, director Arcel orchestrates his action with a stately bleakness that nicely complements its sentimentality, which only manifests itself toward the end. By that late juncture, Mikkelsen and Collin have elicited such intense investment in Ludvig and Ann’s underdog plights that a bit of manipulation is more than welcome—and helps solidify the film as a rousing testament to man’s capacity to tame both the wild and, also, his own savage heart.