After the first minute of “The Promised Land,” Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s period epic set in 18th-century Denmark, we know two things. We know “the heath cannot be tamed” because the opening credits tell us that about the remote, outlaw-ridden Jutland area of Denmark. And we know Mads Mikkelsen stars in the movie.
Anybody want to guess whether the heath gets tamed?
Mikkelsen, we know, is not to be trifled with, whether he’s playing a drunken schoolteacher in “Another Round,” Hannibal Lecter in “Hannibal” or one of the all-time great Bond villains in “Casino Royale.” And “The Promised Land,” which premiered on Friday at the Venice Film Festival, is a handsome, bold two-hour tribute to the power of Mads, both the indominable character he plays and the presence he brings to the screen. “The Promised Land” needs him and he comes through with his ability to give power to the quiet moments and rescue the bombastic ones.
In a film whose Danish title is the evocative “Bastarden,” Mikkelsen plays Ludvig Kahlen, an illegitimate son of a maid and her employer who rose to become a captain in the German army during a 25-year career there. As the film begins, he leaves the veterans’ poorhouse where he’s living and appeals to the Danish court to let him attempt a settlement on the Jutland heath, an inhospitable landscape where crops won’t grow and settlers have to deal with bands of outlaws and equally ravenous groups of land barons who’d rather keep it all to themselves.
Many others have tried and failed to make a life on the heath, but the court agrees to let Ludvig take a shot – not because they think he has a chance of succeeding, but because the king occasionally rouses himself from his drunken stupor to ask if they’re doing anything about “his beloved heath.”
Ludvig sets out with no financial support from the court, only an empty promise to give him a royal title if he succeeds. He manages to find a couple who will work for him for room and board and no wages, mostly because they’ve fled a brutal master and are being hunted down, which makes them pretty much unemployable. The wife, Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin, “Raised by Wolves”), doesn’t say much but seems to quietly run the show, something that becomes increasingly evident as the film goes on.
The would-be settlers face unimaginable hardships. There’s the forbidding terrain, the outlaws and Frederik Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), an effete sadist who wants to own all the land and embraces a philosophy of chaos that allows him to do whatever he wants, from torturing his servants to death to changing his last name to de Schinkel because he thinks it sounds more royal.
Arcel has made Danish period films before, notably the 2012 Oscar-nominated “A Royal Affair,” which also starred Mikkelsen and gave Alicia Vikander her first major role. But that film was a romance and a drama of palace intrigue; this one gets visceral and brutal. You could say Arcel learned a bit about muscular filmmaking during a detour that found him directing the 2017 action flick “The Dark Tower,” although “The Promised Land” feels more personal and assured than Arcel’s big-budget Hollywood movie.
There’s action here, along with scheming, a touch of romance and some reluctant familial bonding when Ludvig and Ann Barbara reluctantly take in a young outlaw girl shunned by other settlers because of her dark skin. “The Promised Land” loves the shadows and finds a luminous, forbidding beauty on the heath, while making it clear that the true dangers lurk beneath powdered wigs: Schinkel is so complete in his villainy that he’d no doubt twirl his mustache, if only he had one. (Sorry, I meant de Schinkel. He so wants people to remember that.)
The movie is set up to have us root for Ludvig, but the deeper it gets the more his single-minded mania begins to drain our sympathy for him. Arcel and Mikkelsen are determined to test our sympathy for a man who sets out to do something good and becomes so consumed by it that he can’t see the harm he’s causing.
We can never really lose our affection for Ludvig because he’s played by Mads, but the film takes an intriguing turn in the homestretch, with Ann Barbara quietly asserting herself in ways we didn’t see coming. By design, Collin may be overshadowed by Mikkelsen for most of the movie – but when all hell breaks loose, she’s the one you want in your corner.
By the end, the stately period drama has turned into a bloody melodrama that gets gothic, graphic and, yeah, thoroughly satisfying, even if it’s a little silly. Arcel has created a film that is big, bold and over-the-top, but it has the right guy at its center to hold everything together – and, in a touch we didn’t know we needed, that guy has the right person by his side.