‘The Promised Land’ (2024) Review: An Unforgiving Danish Epic

Nuha Hassan
5 min readFeb 4, 2024
Mads Mikkelsen as Ludvig Kahlen. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Hollywood has absolutely no idea what to do with Mads Mikkelsen. He has always been typecast as the villain in any movie (Casino Royale, Hannibal, Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, you name it). But when Mikkelsen stars in Danish films, we see him play complex characters.

In Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land (Bastarden), Mikkelsen portrays an expressive and determined man who aims to build a settlement on a barren land. The film explores themes of racism, classism, sexual violence, and exploitation of labour. Set in mid-18th-century Denmark, The Promised Land displays romance, drama, and revenge that captures the central conflict with a predictable story that provides a storybook cliche that somehow works.

Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) is a war veteran. He dresses up in his finest uniform and medal to meet the Royal Treasury and submit a proposal to cultivate Denmark’s Jutland heath — a land that no one has been able to tame for decades. Ludvig wants to grow potatoes on the land and build a settlement with the income he receives as a veteran, and in return, if Ludvig succeeds with his mission, he will receive a royal title and an estate with servants. The ministers at the Royal Treasury are not convinced that he will be able to succeed. So, to keep the King happy, they sign off on the project predicting nothing will happen.

But Ludvig is determined to make this work. He sets up camp with only a tent, a horse, and a gun to protect him from bandits. He searches for soil in harsh weather and finally achieves it. Ludvig visits a nearby town to find workers to help him build his home and grow potatoes on the land. Anton (Gustav Lindh), a local priest, suggests hiring two runaway servants, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen). But the neighbouring royal and notorious landowner, Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), insists that the heath belongs to him, not the King. When Lugvig refuses to comply with his demands to get off the land, Frederik turns into his enemy.

Simon Bennebjerg as Frederik De Schinkel. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It’s refreshing to see Mikkelsen tackle non-villain roles instead of the menacing roles that he plays in Hollywood. His performances in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round and The Hunt are excellent. But in The Promised Land, Ludvig’s character development and portrayal are a marvel to watch.

In the beginning, Ludvig seems indifferent to the people around him. He treats them coldly and refuses to listen to them. He doesn’t want a family. When a Roma girl, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), ends up at his doorstep hungry, he refuses to take her in. But as the story progresses, Ludvig reveals a softer side to his cold demeanour. It’s hard to look away from Mikkelsen’s performance. The duality and depth of his talents go far beyond, and he portrays Ludvig’s attempts to show sympathy — even if it with a cold-stone face — carries a significant weight in his character development, especially towards the end.

While Ludvig wants to finish the settlement and welcome new migrants to the land as his biggest mission, other subplots escalate the story’s conflict and explore the themes. When new migrants arrive from Germany, they refuse to live on the same land because of Anmai Mus’s Romani background. They believe she is a superstition that will bring bad luck to the land.

Melina Hagberg as Anmai Mus and Mads Mikkelsen as Ludvig Kahlen. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Instead of shunning her, Ludvig promises she will not be seen anywhere near them. For Anmai Mus, it’s hard for her to understand the racial prejudice towards her because of her background. But Ann Barbar and Ludvig remind her it is not her fault. It’s easy to gravitate towards Anmai Mus’s energy as she brings Ludvig and Ann Baraba closer— a found family that slowly takes shape.

Apart from Mikkelsen’s incredible portrayal of Ludvig and his character journey, Collin’s performance equally deserves the spotlight. The development of Ann Barbara and Ludvig’s relationship begins as master and housekeeper. But as the story progresses, the boundaries begin to fade. They form a partnership and work together to grow the potato crops. After taking an orphaned Anmai Mus in, they act as surrogate parents to her. Ludvig’s sacrifices infuriate Ann Barbara, but they work things out together.

For a character like Ann Barbara, who has gone through violent and harsh treatment by Frederik, she knows what is at stake. She carries the weight and the range of her anger towards Frederik, who has abused her under his employment, and she desires to be free from all of it. One of the best parts about Ann Barbara’s character development is that she begins as a woman afraid of her abuser and then stands up to him by paying him back, leading to a satisfying end.

Amanda Collin as Ann Barbara. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictres.

The central conflict of the story is between Ludvig and Frederik. He is a petty and abusive landowner who harms his servants and treats them like animals. Frederik is the villain of this movie. There is also a running gag where other characters never say “De Schinkel,” which frustrates him. (He added the “De” to make him sound more aristocratic).

Moreover, his deceit and torture to run Ludvig off the land begins when he is informed about it. He hires bandits to destroy the crops, forces the labourers to leave the settlement and kills the animals, but no matter how harsh the actions are, Ludvig always succeeds. While this movie has complex themes, Frederik’s journey is quite hilarious, as the colossal loser is infuriated by somebody else cultivating the land other than him. It’s an intense warfare between them. But Frederik is just a villain with cartoonish characteristics.

The Promised Land is one of the best movies because of the powerful performances by Mikkelsen, Collin, and the rest of the cast. Arcel portrays the complexities of the European nation’s history of invasion and conquest using a fictionalised version of Ludvig Kahlen’s life. With several conflicts and petty battles from a landowner to overcome, Arcel delivers an exhilarating story and showcases the beautiful landscapes of the Danish Jutland heath. The Promised Land is a satisfying dramatic tale portraying the lengths one person will go to fulfil their ambitions.

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