The Danish drama “The Promised Land” takes its old-fashioned remit with enjoyable seriousness. Set in the mid-18th century, it is a classic tale of haves and have-nots filled with gristle and grit, limitless horizons, scenes of suffering, reversals of fortune and cathartic recognition. It has sweep, romance, violence and spectacle, but what makes it finally work as well as it does is that it largely avoids the ennobling clichés that turn characters into ideals and movies into exercises in spurious nostalgia — well, that and Mads Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen stars as Capt. Ludvig Kahlen, a war veteran with little more than a frayed uniform and a well-polished medal on his chest, who sets out to cultivate the heath in Jutland, the peninsula that makes up most of Denmark. There, on a vast shrubby expanse thought untamable yet beloved by the Danish monarch, Kahlen hopes to work the land and establish a settlement for king, country and himself. Over time, as seasons change and visitors come and go, he does just that, building a new world and cultivating the ground in a laborious, engrossing process that the director Nikolaj Arcel charts with ease and gripping drama.
Written by Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen, the well-paced story briskly takes Kahlen from the poorhouse to the royal palace minutes after opening, establishing the reach of his ambition. (The movie is based on the novel “The Captain and Ann Barbara” from the Danish writer Ida Jessen.) There, he seeks permission to build on the heath from the king’s advisers, a collection of imperial rotters in wigs and satin breeches who agree to his request only after he pledges to pay for the endeavor with his military pension. In return, Kahlen wants a title, a manor and servants; effectively, he wants to become one of them.
Mikkelsen is excellent, and inexorably watchable. He almost always is, whether he’s infusing life into a cardboard Hollywood villain (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”) or having a palpably rollicking time playing a rampaging hero (as in the entertaining action romp “Riders of Justice,” written and directed by Jensen). Mikkelsen’s severe good looks are a crucial part of his appeal, as is the sense of menace and intrigue that certain beauty brings with it. Mikkelsen knows how to complicate his looks and he’s particularly adept at amplifying its menace by withholding readable emotion, a technique that turns his face into a mask you anxiously wait for him to drop.
Kahlen soon reaches Jutland alone on horseback, and the story begins to take flight, as does the camera. With boundless aerial views that establish a sense of place both geographic and emotional, Arcel at once conveys the land’s immensity (and harsh grandeur) and emphasizes the titanic effort of Kahlen’s enterprise (and its loneliness). In both sun and rain, he repeatedly bores into the ground with a hand-held auger to gauge the quality of the soil, feeling, smelling and all but tasting the dirt. With every twist of the auger, he steadily underscores his will. By the time he finds what he needs it’s as if the heath had finally surrendered to him.
There are many more hurdles to come, mostly from other people, and a little hail. Arcel populates the story fairly rapidly after Kahlen decides on a location and with assistance from some locals, including a priest, Anton (Gustav Lindh), who help procure some workers. A supposed folly becomes reality. Kahlen builds a house, burns the heather to prepare the land, fends off outlaws that come creeping in the dark and forms a de facto family with a stray, Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), and a runaway servant, Ann Barbara (a spiky Amanda Collin). He also makes a fast, dangerous enemy of the royal next door, De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a depraved noble with a melancholic cousin, Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp).
With Mikkelsen as the story’s anchor, “The Promised Land” builds steadily and gracefully, drawing you in with drama and a welcome old-school commitment to rounded characters, moral clarity and emotionally satisfying storytelling. Arcel occasionally overloads the movie and some of the characters work less well than others, notably Anmai Mus, a wee charmer with a toothy smile who mostly exists to soften Kahlen’s edges. And while it’s understandable that both Edel and Ann Barbara would gravitate toward Kahlen, the dueling romances push the movie into predictability, something that Mikkelsen — with his slow-burn charisma and beautifully retrained performance — never does.
The Promised Land
Rated R for bloody violence. In Danish and German, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters.