The Promised Land 2024 Movie Review
While one can take issue with a heavy-handed plot and character exaggeration, there has been no other European film this year that pulled at my heart strings so hard. In part that’s due to another Academy Award-worthy performance of Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the world’s greatest active actor. His lonely hero fighting the elements and a brutal class system could not have worked with anybody else. No one else can express grief and dejection or pride and resilience like he can, with as little as a raised eyebrow.
The story is classic Western lore: a single settler attempts to cultivate barren land. He gets no support from a hostile upper class who see him as a threat to their privilege, and makes an enemy out of a sadistic landowner who wants to buy up the entire area (it’s never properly explained what he intends to use it for). He weathers setbacks and intrigues, eventually succeeds, but then abandons his ambition for love.
The novel by Ida Jessen won many awards for being meticulously well researched in a style similar to Hilary Mantel’s. The screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, a more prominent director than Arcel who launched Mikkelsen’s international career with “Adam’s Apples” (2005), keeps this attention to detail. The female lead is also a familiar face to American audiences, since Amanda Collin played the lead in the dystopian SciFi series “Raised by Wolves”.
What makes this my European favorite film of the year is the presence of a non-stereotypical Romani character, since the debate on racism over the past ten years has almost completely ignored them – justifying doubt in its sincerity. The foundation of the hatred against gypsies is the idea that they are strangers without any history, while they have lived in Europe for 600 years under atrocious conditions. This film is a long overdue first step to acknowledging this.
Period dramas are usually set in royal courts (including Arcel’s own “A Royal Affair” (2012), this one explores the power dynamics of the late feudal era – nobility versus the people, men versus women, Danes and Germans versus Roma and Travelers. Apart from the Romanian “Aferim” (2015), which was also a Western, I do not recall any other film addressing slavery in Europe. It would have been too much for a single movie to explain all this, but a little more information would have lessened the outlandish quality of the villain’s cruelty, which borders on caricature. That is the one weak spot of the film, his behavior borders on ridicule. But it is true that these horrific practices actually happened and were actually legal.
So all in all this is the best European fiction film of the year, although I’m fairly certain the foreign Academy Award will go to the more important “20 Days in Mariupol”.