Dir: Nicolaj Arcel | Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Amanda Collin, Simon Bennebjerg, Melina Hagberg, Kristine Kujath Thorp, Gustav Lindh, Søren Malling, Morten Hee Andersen, Magnus Krepper, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Laura Bilgrau Eskild-Jensen
Bastarden or The Promised Land is a handsome if doom-laden frontier drama that transports us back to 18th century Jutland, Denmark. Mads Mikkelsen is Ludvig Kahlen, a dogged but decorated military man who has risen through the ranks and now wishes to dignify his existence by transforming the ragged heathland into a lucrative farming concern, garnering the respect of the King, who owns it, and hopefully a title into the bargain.
A gruelling endeavour this may be, and many have failed before him, including the King, but if anyone can succeed it’s Mikkelsen’s Kahlen, a hard-headed, indomitable stoic with a soulful glint in his eye. Directed by Arcel Nicolaj Arcel and co-written by Oscar-winning Anders Thomas-Jensen we are also in safe hands story-wise, based on Ide Jessen’s 2020 historical work The Captain and Ann Barbara.
Barstarden bristles with rock solid themes of class, race, exploitation and misogyny, and there’s even a menage-a-trois, or even ‘a-quattre’ to lighten things up. All in the best possible taste: This is hardly bodice-ripping territory given the grim nature of the Northern climes.
And Mikkelsen is a mesmerising presence with his graceful economy of movement and tight-lipped charisma. Here, he is Denmark’s answer to Clint Eastward. And he cuts an admirable figure at court in Copenhagen, asking to be granted a spit of land, so he can transform the terrain, financed with his soldier’s pension, into a worthwhile concern. And he gets the go-ahead.
But 18th century Jutland is a barren hostile territory fraught with bandits and gypsies. And Kahlen only has a meagre set-up: a tent, a pistol, a horse and a pick – to start work with. His chosen crop is potatoes. A hardy choice but not immune to frost damage. And there’s another drawback: A violent and villainous enemy in the shape of judge and wealthy landowner Frederik De Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), who claims ownership of this area of the King’s land, and has sought to enoble himself by insisting on adding the “De”, even when others don’t, and this provides the film with a flinty vein of humour.
An invitation to dinner chez “De” Schinkel unfortunately ends in tears when the two disagree over the ownership of the land. But the soldier’s unflinching stance against the caddish would-be aristocrat wins the heart of De Schinkel’s intended, who is also his cousin, the pulchritudinous but penniless Edel (Kristine Kujath Thorp), whose father is forcing her into a loveless marriage of convenience.
And so the battle of wills begins with De Schinkel disrupting Kahlen’s efforts to cultivate the land. A local parson then offers Kahlen the support of two runaway servants who have escaped De Schinkel’s household due to his violent temperament. Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin) agree to work for free, along with some local outlaws and an orphaned Roma girl called Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a ‘darkling’ whom the Danes consider bad luck.
Bastarden soon develops into a rich character drama as the battle of wills plays. And Kahlen fights on doggedly despite the many challenges and amid much physical duress, violence and torture all round. DoP Rasmus Videbaek showcases the magnificent countryside of Northern Denmark and the splendour of its architectural heritage (actually the shooting takes place in Germany and Czechia!). Bastarden is a gripping Nordic Western that once again proves that true love is often stronger than the ultimate desire to succeed. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | GOLDEN LION 2023