The Promised Land review — A grand, sweeping Danish western

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel | Written by Arcel , Anders Thomas Jensen, and Ida Jessen | 127 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Hoopla

An earlier version of this review ran last September during the Atlantic International Film Festival.

This picture inhabits a rare subgenre — it’s a Danish western. It’s also a seriously impressive film, and it’s a real shame it never got a theatrical release. Now, at least, it’s available to be watched for free on Hoopla, the service available through public libraries.

The film is directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who is perhaps best known for the Danish period drama A Royal Affair from about 10 years ago, also starring Mads Mikkelsen along with Alicia Vikander. It’s written by Arcel and the busiest screenwriter in Denmark, Anders Thomas Jensen, who did Riders of Justice and the only other Danish western I can think of, The Salvation, though this is much less a b-movie and more a character study and historic epic, too.

The Promised Land evokes the sprawling vision of films like Days Of Heaven while the plotting remains entirely straightforward: Mikkelsen is Ludvig von Kahlen, and just like The Salvation he’s a former soldier looking for a new start and a better standing in life — he swings a deal to do the impossible, cultivate a plot of heath in Jutland, which, if he succeeds in turning it into farmland, will earn him a noble title from the king.

He’s terminally taciturn and comfortable with solitude, but takes in a peasant couple who’ve escaped from under the boot heel of a local landowner, De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg, hissible). Said landowner is a real villain, refusing to recognize Ludvig’s claim to the tract of inhospitable scrub brush and making every effort to drive him off. Potatoes play a key role in all of this, as does a Roma child, but the movie’s really about ambition, social status, and pride. It’s not about gunfights at the OK Corral, but Mikkelsen does go all John Wick at one point.

The Promised Land is surprisingly entertaining as it explores the sacrifices pioneers in the Danish hinterlands had to make in order to survive, with Mikkelsen giving another of his exquisite internal performances. If you’re a fan of what he does, do not miss this — it’s some of his finest work — as his soldier-turned-farmer straddles the chasm between honour and class,

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.