Mads Mikkelsen as a (mostly) good guy leads 'The Promised Land' in its run for Oscar

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More than a decade after joining forces on the Oscar-nominated film “A Royal Affair,” actor Mads Mikkelsen has reteamed with writer-director Nikolaj Arcel for “The Promised Land,” a stunning historical epic that has been selected as Denmark’s entry for best international feature at the 2024 Academy Awards.

Based on Ida Jessen’s “The Captain and Ann Barbara,” the engrossing period drama tells the story of Capt. Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen), who defied his low status as the illegitimate son of a nobleman and housemaid to become an esteemed military leader in 18th century Denmark. Impoverished and newly retired, Kahlen sets out to cultivate and establish a colony on the notoriously barren heath of Jutland in the name of King Frederik V — a plan that puts him at odds with Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), an insolent, sadistic aristocrat determined to claim Kahlen’s land as his own.

Faced with increasingly vicious threats from De Schinkel, Kahlen chooses to stand his ground. But having spent most of his life fending for himself, the former soldier is forced to reckon with risking not only his life but also those of his newfound chosen family: his servant-turned-partner Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) and a young orphaned girl named Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg).

It’s a particularly meaty role for Mikkelsen, who has combined the hallmarks of the ruthless antiheroes he’s played in Hollywood with qualities from the more vulnerable leading men he’s played in Danish cinema to create one of his most compelling characters to date.

Arcel, who credits becoming a father in his late 40s with helping him to realize there was more to life than just creating stories and art, said he and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen “wanted to tell a grand, epic tale about how our ambitions and desires will inevitably fail if they are all we have,” according to a director’s statement. “Life is chaos; painful and ugly, beautiful and extraordinary, and we are often helpless to control it. As the saying goes, ‘We make plans, and God laughs.’”

For Arcel, Mikkelsen’s on-screen magnetism and subtlety of emotion, paired with his willingness to take “co-responsibility” of the story being told, made him the only actor capable of embodying the complexity and inscrutability of Kahlen.

“He is quite courageous in not being precious about wanting [his characters] to always be just a good guy and like, ‘Oh, he has to be the hero,’” Arcel said in a joint interview with Mikkelsen.

Mikkelsen didn’t have any qualms about the audience “losing sympathy” for Kahlen. “I wanted it to be a man who was so stubborn that it’s almost unbearable to watch, because I think that’s where we find the drama,” said the actor, 57. “So, I go, like, ‘No, let him hit the kid, let him hit the woman, because this is 1750.’ We are all obviously living in 2023, so some of our morals come in without even us realizing. Sometimes, we just have to take a step back and say, ‘Listen, let’s make him so stubborn that we want to kill him, and eventually we will turn the tables on Page 80 and he will open up to become a human being.’”

Although De Schinkel is a formidable foe to Kahlen, Mikkelsen and Arcel were hesitant to call him a “villain.” They prefer the label of “antagonist.”

“I see De Schinkel as a little boy who has all the toys and all the little other boys will play with him, but they don’t like him and he knows it,” said Mikkelsen, who has played his share of antiheroes (“Hannibal”) and antagonists (“Casino Royale,” “Doctor Strange,” “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”). “So I try to approach all the ‘villains’ I do in America like this guy is apparently the hero, [even if] he’s doing a lot of terrible things. The gray zone is more interesting for us.”

Since their last film together, Mikkelsen and Arcel have made further inroads into Hollywood, but they’ve intentionally kept one foot firmly planted in their native country. Although Mikkelsen quips that his “funny accent” has allowed him to corner the market on international baddies — an archetype that he has relished and embraced for nearly two decades, because “it’s better than not doing anything over there” — his most effective star vehicles, including Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” and Oscar-winning “Another Round,” have been made on home soil.

“The Promised Land” is Arcel’s first directorial effort since the 2017 film “The Dark Tower,” which “scarred” him because of the autonomy he lost working on a big-budget, major studio movie. “You don’t have final cut, you don’t have final say on the script, you don’t have final say on the cast — that was a little bit of a shock to the system for me,” Arcel said.

Shot over 42 days last fall in Denmark, Germany and the Czech Republic with a budget of around $10 million, “The Promised Land” feels like a return to form for Arcel, who believes the tightknit Danish film industry is most conducive to the kind of camaraderie and collaboration that he was missing abroad.

As a European filmmaker, “you fail and succeed on your own terms and not on somebody else’s,” Arcel said. Even though there is still an element of competition, the community of Danish directors “is a little bit akin to new Hollywood in the ’70s, the New Wave in France, where all the directors will go, ‘Oh, come and see my movie,’ and then you have five very critical directors sitting in the editing room, watching your first cut or reading your script.”

Mikkelsen said Arcel is “the only one in Denmark who’s doing epic films for almost the same budget [as English-language indies] — a little higher, but not much.” The director is proving that Denmark can produce more than kitchen-sink dramas. “You’re also looking at us as filmmakers with very different kinds of films,” Mikkelsen said. “So we are very proud that you see us with different eyes.”

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