Jutland’s bitterly harsh environment isn’t Kahlen’s only enemy: When a wealthy landowner named Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) gets wind of an interloper on his turf, he sets out to foil him by any means necessary. The fact that two of his recently escaped servants fetch up on Kahlen’s doorstep, then cast their lot with his scheme, only raises the stakes for De Schinkel, who has a taste for sadism and things served in aspic; the only thing missing from this floridly evil villain is a mustache to twirl.
Adapted from Ida Jessen’s novel by director Nikolaj Arcel, working from a script by Anders Thomas Jensen, “The Promised Land” looks terrific: Filmed in epic scale and framed and lit with painterly sensitivity, the movie possesses the kind of spectacle and handsome production values that are best appreciated on the big screen. Arcel plunges viewers into an immersive tale of perseverance, striving and self-sacrifice that, for all its atmosphere and seriousness of purpose, becomes disappointingly rote and lifeless; there will barely be blood in “The Promised Land,” at least until a wild tonal pivot in the third act that turns a rather austere and serious period piece into a genre exercise.
Mikkelsen is such a somber performer that his dour, humorless character feels redundant (he was far more interesting as the inebriated libertine in 2020’s “Another Round”). Still, he’s one of those actors who’s able to recruit the audience’s sympathy by even the tiniest display of emotion. In “The Promised Land,” those emotional moments come by way of Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), De Schinkel’s former maid who develops a strong kinship with Kahlen, and a sharp-eyed, smart-mouthed nomadic girl named Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), whose arrival on the scene suggests that Kahlen’s single-minded rigidity might be ripe for mellowing.
As a portrait of human will, the engulfing depredations of nature, and sheer terror and retribution, “The Promised Land” stakes its claim with admirable gravitas and visual finesse. Arcel and the film lose their footing once the story puddles into melodrama, and the obstacles facing Kahlen become increasingly predictable. What begins as an intriguing visit to a forbidding but fascinating past becomes the kind of perfunctorily moralistic fairy tale that Kahlen himself might scoff at, before getting back to work. Like the wilderness it depicts, this is a movie that ultimately might not want to be tamed.
R. At area theaters. Contains bloody violence, profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity. 127 minutes. In Danish with subtitles.