I interviewed director Nikolaj Arcel downtown around five years ago, when he was in town for Comic Con to promote the Stephen King movie “The Dark Tower.” He was so enthusiastic about his sci-fi Western, I tried my best to smile, even though I wasn’t a fan. This “Western” worked a lot better.
One of the greatest actors today, Mads Mikkelson, plays Ludvig Kahlen. He’s a stoic man who we find out, was the son of a maid raped by a nobleman. He rose through the ranks after 25 years in the military, as a leader in 18th century Denmark. He asks for a portion of the country which is barren, and nothing can grow on it. Now, he was also a farmer, and thinks he can make a go of the brutal land to grow potatoes. King Frederik V wants people on this land, even though everyone who has gone there before hasn’t been able to succeed. He’s given the green light, but a guy named Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), owns land near the heath and he wants to control the area. He doesn’t want a farmer, and then settlers, mucking things up.
Now, while we get some beautiful landscapes, we get some ugly people and scenarios. What Frederik does to Ludvig, and other people, is so dark and disgusting, it makes this a real hard watch.
What was smart about this period piece, is that they don’t just make Ludvig this super sweet guy. He’s what a person of that time period would be. So when a cute young girl is stealing a chicken from him, he slaps her hard. When he hires some runaway serfs that are two nice people, he’s rather rude to them at times. Eventually he lightens up and we start to really like his character.
We start to like him even more when he puts together a makeshift family with one of Frederik’s escaped servants, and the young girl (Melina Hagberg, who is adorable) that used to steal from him.
Mikkelson at times reminded me of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, or Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. He often lets his eyes and steely looks do all the talking.
There’s one scene late in the movie when he’s eating stew and his eyes fill with tears at a memory, and so did mine. It’s one of the best moments you’ll see on screen all year.
People might find parts of the film slow, but my wife and I were both fine with the pacing. Other people might not like reading subtitles, a complaint I’ve never understood.
The movie does have a lot of familiar beats, but the biggest problem is that it’s just so dark and sad. I really couldn’t think of a lot of friends I’d recommend this to, because it’s such a downer most of the time. That being said, it’s a very good film.
3 ½ stars out of 5.