Director Nikolaj Arcel was only one page into Ida Jessen’s novel on which he would base his new film, The Promised Land – and he was already shouting: Mads!
Mads would be Mads Mikkelsen, Arcel’s friend and sometime collaborator.
“He just called me and said: ‘I have this story about a man who’s growing potatoes’. And then there was a long, long pause, and I said, ‘Is there something else he did?’” laughs Mikkelsen.
“But he wrote a fantastic script. And I’ve been waiting for his phone call for ten years – so I was in,” says the Danish actor who first worked with Arcel on his award-winning 2012 film, A Royal Affair.
Their new collaboration is Denmark’s official Oscar entry.
Based on Jessen’s book, The Captain and Ann Barbara, Mikkelsen portrays Captain Ludvig Kahlen, an austere man who arrives on the barren Jutland moors of Denmark, determined to follow the king’s call to cultivate the land and gain wealth and honour.
Stoic and stern, at first Ludvig is not the most likable of men – which is exactly as Mikkelsen intended.
“I think he was actually a little more attractive or sympathetic to watch in the first draft. But I might have been the one who said, ‘No, no. no’,” recalls Mikkelsen.
“I mean, my favourite film of all time is Taxi Driver – not necessarily because it’s the best film in history. I think it’s one of the best films, but I saw it when I was a young man. And it blew my mind because there was a guy I didn’t like, and then I liked him. And then I didn’t like him. And it went back and forth constantly. And I went out of the theater going: ‘That is interesting. And that is exactly what I’m experiencing in my own life, when I watch people’.
“So, there is no drama with this character of Ludvig. Obviously, there’s a lot of things happening to him. And then there’s Barbara and the little girl. But he’s also the conductor of his own destiny. He could have gone left so many times, but he chooses to go right. I think it’s fascinating to dive into a character who wants so desperately to be part of something that he hates. He wants to be a noble person, and he hates them. It’s very human and very recognisable in 2023,” argues Mikkelsen, 57, whose diverse Hollywood career includes roles in Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Casino Royale and Clash of the Titans as well as featuring in the recent Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
When The Promised Land premiered at Venice and Toronto, critics warmly received Arcel’s film, hailing it as a Western.
When we meet with the director today, he reckons that critics may have been right about something that he hadn’t even recognised himself at the time. “I didn’t make it as a Western or think about that. It’s very obvious from some of the imagery in the film that there were certain Westerns that we were inspired by. But mostly I really went back to David Lean,” says the Danish filmmaker responsible for scripting 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as directing Idris Elba in The Dark Tower.
Citing There Will Be Blood as another influence, he says, “I think some of those early reviews also said it’s like old school moviemaking. And I choose to see that as a compliment because, honestly, I think that what people like David Lean did – which is very rare today – is to marry that sweeping epic story with very complex characters. It wasn’t just bland black and white. Peter O’Toole plays an incredibly complex character in Lawrence – and so I think that was the ambition and the dream with this.
“And Mads certainly helped me with that when he came and said ‘let’s make him more like that and less like this’. Mads gave me the courage to stay on course in terms of making Ludvig not a very sympathetic guy. And we were both worried about it at times when he’s slapping the little girl and doing all these things where we’re thinking, ‘are we ever gonna like this guy?’”
Mikkelsen believes that many modern period films can be revisionist in the way they apply modern sentiments to by-gone eras.
“It’s the 1750s here, but there’s always the risk or tendency to squeeze our 2023 morals into the characters. And, I get it, we get it. It’s understandable,” says the actor.
“But, at some point, we have to put it at arm’s length and say: ‘that didn’t happen’. I mean, when I slap the girl, Ann Barbara – who we love in the film – she doesn’t flinch, because that’s what happened. This is what life was about. It was not about having a kitchen sink drama or a dialogue between each other. ‘How was your day?’ ‘How do you feel?’ ‘How do you feel about your dad?’ It didn’t happen. It was all about surviving one day at a time, so we had to be true to that.
“At the same time, we also took liberties in terms of something that is recognisable for us today – the kiss. The kiss was not happening until the 1880s. Nobody kissed each other in the world. But we do that in this film because it’s recognisable. And we do want to invite people into this emotion of the film. So, it’s a very fine balance. And we don’t know if we did it right, but we did our best,” says Mikkelsen who knows a few things about bringing out a certain likability in characters that we really shouldn’t like, having played the role of Dr Hannibal Lecter in critically acclaimed TV series Hannibal for three years, along with one of his first roles in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher.
Surprising for a period story, it is actually the three main women in The Promised Land who prove stronger than any of their male counterparts, the character of Barbara Ann even becoming a kind of avenging angel.
Mikkelsen insists that women did stand up for themselves in that era.
“I’m a history buff, and it did happen. But it was suicide, absolute suicide. Just to speak out in front of my character would have been suicide. So, historically, it did happen. Quite a few people did not put up with that shit. And Barbara Ann was one of them,” he says.
“You have three extremely strong women in the film. One is a noble woman, one is Ann Barbara, and one is a little girl. And they’re all just trying to survive. They are extremely strong for the time. And maybe much stronger than today. They were fascinating characters who we didn’t have to force 2023 morals into them. They were strong as they were,” he says.
Ultimately, Arcel was delighted to find a reason to work with Mikkelsen again. “I love Mads. I really love him. We had so much fun on A Royal Affair and stayed friends since then. I would love to have Mads be in every single movie that I make. It was just about finding the right project. And as soon as I read page one of Ida Jessen’s book, I was like: ‘The captain comes out on the heath; he’s weathered and hardened and ambitious’. I was like: ‘Mads! You should read this. I might have a story for us to do’. Even before I finished the book, I called him.”