Nickolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land (Bastarden) is a poignant, if a bit bleak, tale of determination and struggle, with the lesson being that you can’t always do it alone.
Sometimes, ambition is not enough. In his self-described ‘most personal film to date’, Nickolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land (Bastarden) ponders the question of how far determination can take you when life’s chaos stands in the way. Based on the novel ‘The Captain and Ann Barbara’ by Ida Jessen, Arcel’s film is a sprawling, poignant character drama. It’s a little bit slow and slightly dour, but it carries an emotional heft to it that is really impactful, aided by a terrific lead performance from Mads Mikkelsen.
Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) is determined to conquer Jutland Heath, a vast swathe of seemingly uninhabitable land, in the name of the Danish King – and for the handsome reward of his very own noble title. But when his conquest sees him hire runaway workers, including housemaid Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), and outlaws from the neighbouring forest, local landowner Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) is infuriated. Not only is he Ann Barabara’s former master, but he believes the Heath belongs to him. But as Ludvig ignores the repeated attempts to drive him away, De Schinkel grows merciless, and soon Ludvig finds himself fighting for not only his land and his own life, but the lives of those he has grown closest to.
There’s no getting around it: The Promised Land is not an upbeat film. There are odd moments of humour, with the central found-family narrative being the source of almost all the film’s lightness, but things are generally pretty bleak throughout. There are countless scenes of Ludvig working, of the back-breaking effort he puts in to cultivating soil and clearing rock through wind, rain, sun and snow. There’s no mistaking the determination of the man, and his desperation to make something of himself is what fuels him for the majority of the film. But as Ludvig starts to realise that it can’t be a solo endeavour, that the family he finds along the way mean as much to him as any noble title, that the film really comes in to its own.
And it also helps that Mikkelsen is magnetic as Ludvig. He’s stoic and reserved, but also brimming with emotion. His eyes, his expressive face and the way he holds himself give the character so much depth, despite him hardly speaking. Ludvig is fundamentally a decent person, a contrasting mix of bravado, strength and vulnerability. Even if he isn’t always good, he’s so captivating that we are invested in him regardless, and that’s essential as so much of the film rests on our ability to connect with him. It’s a really impressive performance and it stops things from feeling like too much of a drag.
And ‘too much’ are the key words there, because The Promised Land certainly isn’t fast paced. Watching it is a strange mix of being aware that it is moving slowly, but also not particularly caring because it gives the emotion more time to breathe and develop. Arcel’s film is sprawling but intimate, covering an extensive area of land but upon which the story of just one man is unfolding. It’s a film that’s both historical and epic, without necessarily being in the ‘historical epic’ genre. Instead, it’s a much more insular drama about Ludvig, his family, and how chaotic things can get when you’re singularly focused on a goal.
It also features a truly detestable villain in Bennebjerg’s De Schinkel (the ‘De’ was self-styled to make him sound more important). He is awful. He is snide and petulant and uncompromising in his cruelty, and Bennebjerg is clearly trying to inject some humanity into him with his eyes glossy with tears as he inflicts his torture. It doesn’t particularly work, but that’s purely because his character functions better as an almost caricature bad guy with zero redeemable features within the confines of the world Arcel has created. The potential for there to be any emotional or vulnerable shades to him simply doesn’t ring true.
The Promised Land is a film that some might struggle with, but for the reasons that some may love it. It’s meandering and in no rush to deliver dramatics, but it’s also full of emotion and anchored by a really impressive Mikkelsen. There’s beauty in its bleakness, and just like the first sprout of green leaves, it’s worth the effort.
The Promised Land (Bastarden) premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival on September 1, 2023. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and discover the 2023 Venice Immersive Lineup!