The promised land
Credit: Icon Picture distribution

The Promised Land – A Review

‘In 1755, the impoverished Captain Ludvig Kahlen sets out to conquer the uninhabitable Danish heath in the name of the King. But the sole ruler of the area, the merciless Frederik de Schinkel, who believes the land belongs to him, swears revenge when the maid Ann Barbara and her serf husband escape for refuge with Kahlen.’

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel and written by Arcel alongside Anders Thomas Jensen, Bastarden, also known by its English title The Promised Land, is a dramatic historical epic, featuring Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen. Loosely inspired by the story of the retired 18th-century army captain turned farmer Ludwig von Kahlen, as portrayed in Ida Jessen’s 2022 novel The Captain and Ann Barbara, the film embarks on a journey through the Danish marshes, weaving themes of isolation, wildlife, and the harsh realities of 18th-century life.

The Promised Land has been depicted by critics as a Nordic Western, however, I would suggest its thematic depth and narrative complexity align more closely with the works of filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan, especially comparing the characters and historical narratives of von Kahlen and Oppenheimer, with both characters appearing solitary, flawed, and embarking on a tiresome quest.

From its opening frames capturing the breathtaking Danish marshes, The Promised Land immerses viewers in the rugged beauty of its setting, introducing the solitary existence of the main character, Ludwig von Kahlen.

Although von Kahlen is a seriously unsavoury character, with him mistreating an orphaned girl, marginalised due to her ethnicity, and also with him demeaning his workers and the women who enter and leave his life, The Promised Land remains unflinching to what life may have actually been like in 18th century, hierarchical Denmark. Von Kahlen is presented constantly working towards elevating his name, but in doing so, he becomes highly unlikeable and isolated by both the upper and working class and does not truly find happiness (although it is suggested that he does during the end sequence).

A major gripe I have with this film is that, although I was not able to understand the dialogue without subtitles, the scenes and dialogue were not really written like a film. Rather, they were written like a video game. Scenes took place as if there were side characters giving the audience a backstory, fight-scenes occurred as if someone was controlling them, and relationships and dialogue occurred as if you had to flick through textboxes. It didn’t truly feel like a thorough, cohesive narrative, rather a collection of scenes sewn together through relating material and characters. However, this may have been due to the preexisting material (the novel), which I am unaware of.

In conclusion, The Promised Land is a compelling watch, offering a thought-provoking exploration of ambition, isolation, and the human condition. This film is for viewers that enjoy historical dramas, an underdog, and a little bit of gritty, at times unfair, action.

Picture credit: Icon Film Distribution.