The Promised Land: potato farming turns bloody in this bold 18th-century Danish epic

Mads Mikkelsen makes a convincing bid for the A-list as a retired Danish soldier who dreams of becoming Europe’s first ever potato magnate in Nikolaj Arcel's stately period piece.

Mads Mikkelsen as Ludvig Kahlen in The Promised Land (2023)

The title of The Promised Land refers – with no little irony – to the hard, windswept heath being claimed by a penniless but enterprising Danish soldier with designs on extracting its putative bounty. More specifically, our man dreams of becoming Europe’s first ever potato magnate, an aspiration that, for various reasons, keeps exceeding his callused grasp. But the phrase also evokes a rarefied plateau of movie stardom, a Valhalla whose inhabitants can reliably shoulder the rigours and risks of a big budget international co-production and carry it across the finish line.

Thus do the aspirations of character and actor converge in Nikolaj Arcel’s 18th-century epic, which finds Mads Mikkelsen making a convincing bid for the A-list. In America, the actor has parlayed his demonic handsomeness into a series of featured villain roles, including a battle with no less than Indiana Jones last summer; in his homeland, though, he’s a leading man, tasked with embodying hard-bitten heroism in the John Ford mould. His character, a strapping physical specimen by the name of Ludvig Kahlen, is a man building his own little corner of civilisation from the ground up; he sweats, glowers and suffers, a lonely silhouette against the horizon. After just a few backbreaking scenes of reaping and sowing, you want to pick up a shovel and help, or at least buy the poor guy a nice, crisp lager.

The Promised Land (2023)

The question of what exactly drives a man like Ludvig is left not only unanswered by Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay, but also unasked: his defiance is just a naturally occurring phenomenon, like the wind and the rain. (The story is adapted from a historical novel by Ida Jessen). Similarly, the political subtext of a military man looking for a piece of the land he’s spent his life defending on behalf of a benevolent but detached monarchy is present but not developed, probably because there’s too much plot to get through. Ludvig must contend with not only the elements, which are harsh bordering on intractable, but also human competitors: his decency and drive make him the natural envy of some snivelling aristocratic rivals, chief among them Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg).

Where Ludvig assembles a motley crew of ranchers and field hands and treats them kindly despite their outcast status – showing himself to be above the social and racial prejudices of his era – Frederik is an abusive monster who never met an advantage he couldn’t press, from physical and verbal abuse to rape and blackmail. He’s almost programmatically hateful (the film’s Danish title translates as ‘The Bastard’), and to the extent that The Promised Land has suspense, it’s less to do with whether Ludvig is going to take a piece out of his rival but how much, and whether there’s gonna be any of ol’ Frederik left over to bury in the cold, hard Jutland soil.

Stoking an audience’s bloodlust isn’t hard, exactly, but doing it in the guise of a handsome, stately period piece is tricky: there’s a reason only a few filmmakers – like, say, Quentin Tarantino – deal in prestige exploitation. That’s a high bar, but taken strictly on a technical level, The Promised Land is impressive stuff, even if it ultimately feels more assembled than realised.

Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk gives the landscapes a painterly glint without sacrificing tactile grit; Dan Romer’s score is powerful without being overbearing; Olivier Bugge Coutté cuts with a mix of stateliness and urgency. In a movie like this pacing is everything, and Arcel – last seen slogging his way through Stephen King’s fantasy landscape in The Dark Tower (2017) – knows how to deliver atrocities at regular intervals en route to a final reckoning. It’s all pretty shameless, which isn’t a criticism.

With a movie this stolid and satisfying, apologies – like indoor plumbing – are for wimps. As for Mikkelsen, he’s having a great time. Ludvig’s stoic, angular countenance may or may not contain multitudes, but every so often, there’s a hint of a grin. It’s the slight, self-contained smile that comes with a job well done. The Promised Land is a meaty movie – and thanks to Ludvig’s efforts, you can have fries with it as well.

The Promised Land is in UK cinemas from 16 February.