Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘The Promised Land’ Has Too Much To Balance

Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Writers: Nikolaj Arcel, Anders Thomas Jensen, Ida Jessen
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Gustav Lindh

Synopsis: The story of Ludvig Kahlen who pursued his lifelong dream: To make the heath bring him wealth and honor.

I suppose one doesn’t have to be an experienced dramaturg to observe that it can be difficult to shape the struggles of farmers hoping to achieve agricultural development into conventionally entertaining drama. When films attempt to delve deep into the minutiae of collectivized farming or vernalization, it inevitably brings forth memories of early Soviet cinema. Filmmakers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein and Oleksandr Dovzhenko were once encouraged to make films that would help to promote agricultural policies that were being enacted by the government. In many cases, these filmmakers chose to deviate from the propaganda playbook and turn what could have been a superficial celebration of the Party Line into a thoughtful meditation on the moral responsibility that farmers have to preserve the beauty of the natural environment. In their way, these were harsh, morally fraught pictures that exhibited a touch of misanthropy in projecting a vision of the natural environment as a pure vessel that will inevitably be corrupted at the hands of greedy humans. As cinema began to progress beyond this form of propaganda picture, this peculiar micro-genre began to fade away, but its influence continues to linger on. 

Just look at Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land (2023), which is far more conventional than the likes of Earth (1930) and The General Line (1929), in its form and content. In spite of all this, it still displays a similar interest in dramatizing the conflict between flawed, selfish human beings and their pledge to cultivate land on ethical terms. The script, which is loosely based on the story of real-life figure Ludvig Kahlen, opens in 1755 during the reign of King Frederick V of Denmark. Kahlen, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, is depicted as an ambitious army veteran who hopes to improve his social status by establishing a settlement on the barren Jutland moorland. The Royal Danish Court gives him permission to carry out his plans but, upon arriving in the region, he soon comes into conflict with Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a local nobleman who aims to prevent Kahlen from gaining influence over the local populace. Kahlen’s approach to cultivating the land initially fails to pay dividends but he begins to provide results when he takes on Romani travelers and former employees of de Schinkel as laborers. However, the rivalry between the two men quickly causes a breakdown in communication between Kahlen and members of the ruling class; placing him in the unenviable position of negotiating with his primary adversary. 

The film is chock-full of what could charitably be called ‘old-fashioned’ storytelling devices and crams a considerable number of subplots into its relatively brief running time. It is, I suppose, admirable that Nikolaj Arcel still has a desire to make the sort of earnest, unabashedly cheesy historical epics that have largely fallen out of favor in the past few decades. His filmmaking sensibilities remain firmly rooted in the 1990s, in ways that are both charming and irritating. On the one hand, he does have an eye for stunning vistas and a willingness to indulge in sentimentality. On the other hand, he has a tendency to put too much on his plate and that doesn’t leave him the time to properly flesh out all of the components of the narrative that the film flirts with exploring. You can see why he wanted to make a film that happened to be a romantic tragedy and a tender domestic drama and a handsomely mounted period piece but he doesn’t fully succeed in stringing these disparate segments of the film together. 

The Promised Land is arguably at its most interesting in its second half, when it threatens to wade into the somewhat murky debate over whether the ends justify the means when it comes to fortifying a recently formed community. Kahlen’s newly established settlement is strengthened when the government agrees to send fifty North German settlers to live and work on his land. They are shown to be hard-working and effective in legitimizing Kahlen’s settlement project but are also revealed to hold racist prejudices that put them at odds with the more progressive-minded Kahlen. It’s at this point that the film dips its toe into previously uncharted waters and brushes up against thorny questions that it has no real intention of grappling with. As this is a feel-good drama, Kahlen is never fully placed in conflict with the German settlers and doesn’t have to make a choice that would force him to compromise his values. It’s disappointing that Arcel chose to nip this under-explored plot development in the bud but it does hint at the fact that The Promised Land didn’t have to go down quite so smoothly. 

Grade: C

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