Every year more prestige films are crammed into year-end awards contention, even though many of them won’t open (beyond nominal NYC-LA “qualifying runs”) until the following annum. This creates a glut of last-minute viewing prospects for voting groups, many of whose members won’t bother getting through the full pile. Inevitably, there are casualties, in movies that greatly deserve laurels but simply came too late in a too-crowded field, and consequently get overlooked.
That already appears to be the case with The Promised Land, a Danish-German-Swedish coproduction that didn’t make the final five of Best International Feature nominees for the Oscar (as Denmark’s entry). Which is a real shame, because not only is Nikolaj Arcel’s drama excellent, it’s also exactly the kind of enterprise that frequently magnetizes such prizes: A fact-based historical epic with a lot of sweep and tumult that earns honest tears, and provides a great role for a great star.
That star is Mads Mikkelsen, who reminds you that at any moment in time there are a lot of prominent screen personalities, but not that many who are also great screen actors, let alone with a serious range as well as magnetism. He’s done plenty of English-language projects, including the inevitable popcorn franchise villain roles menacing 007, Marvel heroes, and JK Rowling protagonists, as well as the title role in the grisly spinoff series Hannibal.
But while he always has striking authority in such contexts, you’d have no idea how formidable his talent is without surveying at least some of his primarily Danish-language European films, including multiple titles each from Anders Thomas Jensen, Susanne Bier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Thomas Vinterberg and more. His performances there are complex, chameleonic without being showy, and run a seemingly effortless gamut from savage (as a 12th-century Norse warrior in Valhalla Rising) to hilarious (Adam’s Apples, Men & Chicken).
Promised Land reinforces Mikkelsen’s resemblance to the late Max von Sydow, another Scandinavian actor who (after his initial Ingmar Bergman phase) went “international,” and seemed born to anchor epic sagas—whether The Greatest Story Ever Told (as Jesus), pioneer diptych The Emigrants and The New Land, or as the Job-like father in Pelle the Conqueror. This is a story somewhat in the latter vein, though its series of cruel misfortunes also straddles the aristocratic milieu of the actor and director’s prior collaboration, 2012’s A Royal Affair.
In 1755, Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen) is middle-aged and newly retired from a quarter century in the army of Denmark’s ally Germany. He has little to show for all his distinguished service—a Copenhagen poorhouse for veterans is all that’s offered to someone like him, who can expect no greater reward without the prerequisite of noble lineage. But he stubbornly refuses to admit he cannot advance himself further, by sheer will and industry. Though initially denied financing by the King’s cabinet, he says he’ll prove “all land can be cultivated”—even the bleak, underpopulated moors in peninsular Jutland—without assistance, his only stipulation being that success gets him granted a title and manor. As the court has nothing to lose from a seemingly doomed, foolish venture, he gets a go-ahead.
The ground in this windy wasteland is so unyielding, planting seeds basically requires a giant corkscrew. Nonetheless, Ludvig does make progress, by dint of harsh, humorless dedication. He gains the beginnings of a serf labor force in the form of a tenant-farmer couple (Amanda Collin, Morten Hee Andersen) who’ve fled the sadistic abuses of Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), the only aristocrat hereabouts. The latter is a frivolous if malicious layabout who at first simply piles scorn on his low-status new neighbor. But when Ludvig does become a success story, this vicious and petty adversary uses every dirty trick to undermine him, including claiming that the newly developed land (Ludwig’s by court decree) is his own property.
I’ve no idea how fact-based this tale is—Captain Kahlen did, in fact, exist—but it certainly has a firm control on blood-and-thunder melodrama of an old school, with primal conflicts that elicit powerful emotions. De Schinkel is a great villain who does absolutely despicable things. Yet unstable and wicked as he is, he never becomes a caricature in Bennebjerg’s astute, sometimes alarming portrayal. Nor does the movie ever succumb to sentimentality despite the de facto adoption of a Roma foundling (played at different ages by Hagberg Melina and Laura Bilgrau Eskild-Jesen), or the romantic potential in a princessy noblewoman (Kristine Kujath Thorp) who sees Ludvig as a means to escape her ties to the dread de Schinkel.
Co-written by the aforementioned Jensen, who’s had a hand in many of the best Danish features of the last 25 years, this is a handsomely produced but convincingly brutal look at a place and time not much removed from feudal days—de Schinkel gets away with literal murder (and rape) because he knows someone like him need fear no consequences wreaking havoc on mere peasants. He is above the law in exactly the way some of our current political leaders are itching to be.
As for Mikkelsen, the astringency with which he etches his hero for a long time, his manner leathered by poverty and battle, only makes more potent the eventual scenes where we realize how deeply attached Ludvig has grown to those under his permeable protection. Of course, the actor doesn’t milk those moments at all—and his restraint will just about break your heart.
The Promised Land is a full-course narrative meal, not particularly nuanced in its moral dynamics (good is plain good, bad is very bad), but richly satisfying nonetheless. It’s surely a good thing that the Oscars this year have taken note of such subtle, comparatively small-scale foreign language probings of human psychology as Past Lives, Anatomy of a Fall, and The Zone of Interest. But the fact that this exemplar of intelligent, moving epic storytelling should go without a single nomination is not just unjust, but baffling.
THE PROMISED LAND OPENS Fri/2 at Bay Area theaters including SF’s Opera Plaza, the Smith Rafael Film Center, and Cinemark Century Daly City.