Film & TV Film Reviews Reviews

The Promised Land review

Mads Mikkelsen in The Promised Land.

Credit: Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa / Magnolia Pictures

This The Promised Land review contains spoilers.

Ever wanted to see a film that’s like Rob Roy mixed with an early stage Minecraft session? Then, dear readers, have I got the movie for you.

The Promised Land (also known as Bastarden) is a film about what a man will do in order to achieve what he believes he desires – and how that can all change.

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel, the film is set in Denmark in the middle of the eighteenth century. As a result, there is a mixture of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and German.

Ludvig Kahlen (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is a former captain in the German army. After 25 years’ service, he finds himself in a veteran’s poor house, languishing on his meagre pension. A man of action, he decides to make his fortune another way.

His plan is to start a colony on the Jutland heath, a Barron plain where it is believed nothing can grow. The area is mostly abandoned, except for bandits.

Kahlen goes to seek royal approval to settle this land, believing that he can find good, fertile ground to make use of.

At first, royal ministers are quick to dismiss this, as they see no point in throwing money at a task they believe to be a futile effort. However, their minds are changed when Kahlen offers to fund the operation himself, in exchange for a noble title and manor should he be successful.

These high born fops agree mainly because they think he will fail, and have no intention of honouring this deal. The heath is also somewhat of a passion project for the king.

He feels sentimental about it, and has been trying to make this large parcel of unused land useful for sometime.

In agreeing to this, the ministers get to appease the king by showing they are still trying to make the heath thing a thing. If it succeeds, great! If it fails, well, at least they can say they tried.

Kahlen sets out and tries to find suitable ground for farming. Most of the ground is sandy and unfit for purpose, but eventually this Mads lad (get it?) actually finds good ground.

While trying to find the perfect spawn point, Ludwig is lured into the woods by a young girl crying for help, only to be ambushed by a man running at him with a knife (like a bad night out in London).

As you can guess, attacking a man with a quarter century of military experience doesn’t equal a good time, Ludwig easily no-scopes the guy.

When he starts to set up shop, he goes to a nearby town to collect a secret package from Germany that is full of what he will be growing. Spoiler alert – it’s potatoes, which are notable for being a pretty easy plant to grow in most kinds of soil.

In the town, he befriends a pastor called Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh), who introduces him to his first workers, a married couple called Johannes (Mortan Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin).

He’s reluctant at first – they are runaways from they’re original master and hiring would be illegal. But he changes his mind out of desperation.

Time passes and the farm begins to take shape. Ann Barbra keeps the home while Kahlen and Johannes work the land, and things look like they may work out – but what’s that coming over the hill? That’s right – narrative conflict!

It turns out that the commissioners have been sent by a local lord. This high born dandy believes that he has a claim to the land, and invites Kahlen to dinner at his manor to politely ask him to piss off.

Kahlen puts on his officers uniform and heads over to meet the pompous Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who holds the very rare distinction of failing the vibe check before even opening his mouth.

He’s the head honcho of these parts, serving as the county judge and feudal lord of the surrounding peasants. He’s a narcissistic, arrogant, and cruel man.

Schinkel belittles and threatens Kahlen, claiming that it’s his land by right. As a man who’s walked head on in to musket fire and grapeshot, some snobby little prat with a fake name doesn’t scare our boy though. He simply reminds him that, actually, the land belongs to the king and peace’s out of there.

This display of bad-assery catches the eye of Scinkels cousin and potential fiancé Cersei… I mean, Kristine Krurjath Thorp (Edel Helene) who was also present at the dinner.

In a scene straight out of Step Brothers, she goes out to tell Kahlen how hot it was when he stood up to her cousin/husband-to-be, and invites him to a party that’s going to be thrown in a few weeks. She also gives him her handkerchief, which is basically the 1750 version of putting the winky emoji in a risky Tinder message.

Back at the farm, Kahlen’s tenants warn him that Schinkel was the master they ran away from and that he’s a dangerous man who makes a habit of brutalising his staff. Kahlen doesn’t care, though, and still plans to go ahead with his plans to make the land worth something.

Mads Mikkelsen in The Promised Land.
Credit: Henrik Ohsten, Zentropa / Magnolia Pictures

I won’t go into any more of the plot as this film is just over two hours long. But, suffice to say, tensions build between Kahlen and Schinkel, with the latter attempting different tactics to rid himself of the former.

To me, the underlying narrative was just as interesting as the wider plot. What will a man do to pursue his ambition? What is he willing to sacrifice? And how can these ambitions blind him to things that are truly important?

As previously mentioned, Kahlen tends to wear his old captains uniform when he attempts to make a good/noble impression (that, and the fact he’s destitute and they’re the nicest threads he owns).

Eventually, he recruits new forest friends, and the group leader sees his war medal and adds it to part of the bargain for joining. This medal is shown to be of significant sentimental value to Ludvig – the film starts with him polishing it in the poor house, and pinning it on with pride before his audience with the king’s bureaucrats.

Though reluctant, he does relent and hands it over. This is the first real sacrifice he makes to try achieve his goals, but it’s certainly not the last.

At first, Kahlen come off as a very rigid and austere man. He’s able to take the snide jabs from stuck up nobles and is down right unflinching in the face of danger.

Ann Barbara notes to her husband that whilst keeping his house, he expects the floors to be spotless, his food to be served in the dead centre of his plate, and for all his effects to be perfectly lined up in his home like “he thinks he’s a high lord or something”.

This no doubt comes from a strict and regimented life spent in the army.

This begins to change over the course of the film, as he starts to care more for the people under his protection. Most notably Ann Babara and Anmai Mus, who he takes in and becomes a surrogate farther to.

This relationship with Anmai Mus is particularly touching, as she is routinely ostracised by others, down to her dark skin complexion. Kahlen sees past this racial prejudice, though, and embraces her as part of his “clan”, seeing her for the smart, attentive, and quick-witted girl she is.

Unsurprisingly, Mads Mikkelsen turns in an excellent performance (as always). He’s able to play Kahlen as a gruff, no-nonsense, and bleak man who is highly-focused on his goals, but is also capable of great tenderness to those he cares for.

This gradual change is done very well. It’s not an abrupt Christmas miracle kind of thing. It’s subtle and sometimes he skirts the line between kind and overly zealous, but he’s a man becoming better than he was. Maybe it’s the writing, or maybe it’s that Mikkelsen is such a phenomenal talent, but either way, it was impressive.

Simon Benneberj was also great at playing a slimy prick who’s also intimidating due to his lack of regard for other people. He gives off very King Joffrey vibes and is one of those dudes you want to punch in the face.

However, he is just so much fun to hate that you can’t help but love it when they’re on screen. He can come across as bit cartoonishly evil at times, with no redeeming qualities at all, but he’s still very entertaining nonetheless.  

If I had to criticise anything (other than questioning why Schinkel cares so much about owning this useless land), I’d single out the film’s pacing issues. As your mother has often told me, the climax felt a little bit rushed.

Building up the farm to a point where something actually grew took so such a long time – this left me wanting more action, which certainly deserved a greater focus. All in all, though, I went in assuming I’d enjoy this film, and, like the first time I went to Five Guys, it surpassed my expectations.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

Do you agree with our The Promised Land review? Let us know in the comment section below and don’t forget to check out our Film & TV articles…

Cameron Bennett

Cameron Bennett

About Author

Cameron is an occasional contributor to Downtime Bros. He has long been interested in movies, pro wrestling, TV shows, and video games. Enjoying RPGs the most, he has over 500+ hours logged in Skyrim alone. Cameron describes himself as a 30 year old teenager who still thinks a mosh pit is a good idea. But, despite this, he has a keen mind for history and a good ear for music.

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