A Danish veteran back from war with Germany in the mid-18th century is on a mission to tame the brutal Jutland heath by turning it into fertile land. The idea is a pet project of the Danish king; when the soldier, Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) offers to fund the project from his war pension, officials cynically agree. Should he succeed, he will become a Danish noble with a title, a manor and servants.

We make plans and God laughs, says the writer and director Nikolaj Arcel. He first collaborated with Mikkelsen in 2012 in The Royal Affair which was set at a similar time in Danish history and was equally magnificent in its themes of ambition and madness.

The Jutland heath was a place of wildness, a barren wasteland occupied by outlaws and Taters – descendants of Romany gypsies who speak a Latinate patois. There is also a missionary church led by the sweet-faced pastor Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh) who helps Kahlen by handing on two runaways he has been sheltering, Anna Barbara (Amanda Collin from Raised by Wolves) and her husband Johannes (Morton Hee Andersen). They had fled the estate of nobleman Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a weak and evil drunkard whose delusions of grandeur in his eyes make him the owner of the heath on which Kahlen wants to farm.

The story is complex and takes some investment as Kahlen, the unrecognised bastard son of a servant woman and estate owner, is in turns humiliated and courted by de Schinkel, a man unaccustomed to being denied. When de Schinkel arrives with leftovers from a banquet and a purse full of money, Kahlen accepts then returns them in disgust at having let himself be bought. The landscape darkens, with a scene of extraordinary cruelty that deserves an audience warning for the squeamish.

Yet Kahlen stays in the log home he calls King’s House, believing in his right to build on the land of the Danish king. When one option is taken away, he finds another and for a time has the Taters helping him burn the land ahead of sowing the resistant German crop in which he has such faith, the humble potato.

Everything, including nature, conspires against him and Kahlen’s grim determination starts raising larger questions about the price he will pay to become a noble.

It is at heart a love story that takes many forms. It’s a psychodrama about a man’s journey to find himself, and also a riveting fight between wrong and right as an unscrupulous nobleman tries to claim what is not his. In short, it’s a lot.

But this forbidding and magnificent drama has at its disposal Mads Mikkelsen’s face which, in repose, is one of the wonders of cinema for the depth it conveys of hidden pain and purpose. His tour de force performance, older and greyer than we have seen him, is the rock on which this quintessentially Danish saga stands.

The Promised Land is in cinemas now.

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