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Film Reviews: How to Have Sex & The Promised Land

Arts Review2024-2-9By: Marc Glassman


From Europe, With Love

How to Have Sex & The Promised Land

By Marc Glassman


How to Have Sex

Molly Manning Walker, director and script

Starring: Mia McKenna-Bruce (Tara), Lara Peake (Skye), Samuel Bottomley (Paddy), Shaun Thomas (Badger), Enva Lewis (Em), Laura Ambler (Paige)

Spring break has become a rite-of-passage for teenagers in America and England, one that’s controversial but reluctantly accepted by parents as something their children are permitted to do. It’s the time when adolescents break free from conventional morality after finishing school and are allowed to party like crazy at vacation spots like Florida in the States and the Greek or Spanish islands if you’re in the U.K. Molly Manning Walker, just turned 30, has made a film about three young women experiencing their British spring break, which is in equal parts, brilliant and painful and funny. It’s called How to Have Sex, which is what spring break is truly all about, but it might have been called “how not to have sex,” —or, perhaps best, “how should you have sex?”

 Tara, Skye and Em have finished their exams and are fulfilling their dream of enjoying themselves to the utmost on the Greek island of Malia, where the weather is great, the Mediterranean Sea is cold but beautiful and the village they’re in is set up for parties and long, long nights. From the moment we meet the trio, they’re in full vacation mode: leaping and screeching from excitement, totally committed to having the best time of their young lives. To them, what that means is drinking to excess, dancing like crazy at clubs and either having sex or at least hooking up with a partner for most of the night. 

On the first day, the women meet up with the trio on the balcony across the way, a group of Londoners—Paddy, who is quietly arrogant and (the women notice) “fit,” Badger, his funny, quirky pal and their friend—presumably non-binary or a lesbian—Paige. Tara, Skye and Em are from the unfashionable north—possibly Newcastle or Sunderland—but they’re determined to be as cool as their new London friends. 

They bond by drinking together at a “pre” before going out to party the night away at clubs on the Malia strip of shops, bars and restaurants. Tara, the youngest at 16, begins to drift away but she suddenly sees Paddy amongst the melee of people, and the two head to the beach. Though she’s reluctant to swim and quietly suggests that she isn’t that attracted to Paddy, Tara finds herself grabbed and tossed into the chilly water. After a short plunge in the sea Tara finds the young “fit” man offering his body to warm her up on the beach. Paddy takes advantage of the situation—he’s much bigger and stronger than Tara–to have sex with her. Though Tara doesn’t scream or fight him, it’s clear that she isn’t happy about what’s happening. The audience knows that it is her first time and she undoubtedly hoped for something better—and there’s no question that Paddy doesn’t treat her with warmth or respect afterward. 

Walker cleverly creates suspense when the other five wake up in the morning to discover that Tara is missing. Paddy says nothing and Skye, who has been bugging her about losing her virginity, correctly guesses that Tara has had sex. Only Em and Badger are sufficiently worried to try to find Tara, which says a lot about the “love you always” sentiments freely expressed by the young women and men in the film. Eventually, Tara does show up, having had a nice time with some other crazy Brits, who took her under their wings for the rest of the evening after Paddy abandoned her. 

How to Have Sex is adroitly constructed, allowing the audience to enjoy the crazy first half of the film and then moving us into an emotional engagement with Tara, who is confused and distraught after having had sex with Paddy. She doesn’t properly convey how upset she is to Skye and Em, who initially think that being with Paddy was a good thing. Ironically, it’s Badger who tries to help her, offering the classic British tea and sympathy. In a problematic scene, the sleepy Tara is raped (perhaps unintentionally) by Paddy, though the full consequences of the situation are arrested by the arrival in the bedroom of several others. 

Molly Manning Walker has made a deep and disturbing film, which makes one question whether our treatment of adolescents is correct. Tara, the “good girl” is forced into making poor decisions because of peer pressure and a general perception of what “fun” is like in Western culture now. Are any of the kids/late adolescents in the film truly awful? Should they be condemned for having a “good time”? We’re left with the unsettling realization that Tara has to deal with an event, which should have been wonderful, but clearly was not. Is anyone to blame? 

How to Have Sex is a fascinating and deeply resonant film. Kudos to Molly Manning Walker, who has made an exceptional feature directorial debut and Mia McKenna-Bruce, who makes us care about the young, confused, and attractive Tara. 


The Promised Land

Nikolaj Arcel, director & co-script w/Anders Thomas Jensen based on the book by Ida Jessen

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen (Ludvig Kahlen), Amanda Collin (Ana Barbara), Simon Bennebjerg (Frederik de Schinkel), Melina Hagberg (Anmai Mus), Kristine Kujath Thorp (Edel Helene)

The Danish writer-director Nicolaj Arcel has made a rarity: a film intended for festival and international art-house success, which has all the virtues of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. The Promised Land is so reminiscent of the action-packed outdoor American films of the Fifties that it’s fair to call it an “Eastern.” That’s reinforced by the chiseled features and laconic spoken delivery of Denmark’s great star Mads Mikkelsen, which reminds one of Henry Fonda and John Wayne in John Ford’s epic Fort Apache—the story is different, but the tight lipped uber-masculine attitude of the heroic main characters is the same. Mikkelsen’s performance as the retired Colonel Ludvig Kahlen is mirrored in a minor key by Amanda Collin, who offers in the widow Ana Barbara the strength of will and force of character that would surely have done Maureen O’Hara proud in her heyday. More than matching them in charisma is Simon Bennebjerg as the film’s villain—a genre must—the scene-stealing alcoholic aristocrat Frederik de Schinkel (adding the “de” to his name was his invention.)

Jutland is Denmark’s equivalent of America’s Wild West, a place that required tough men and women to settle. The classic Western involved a conflict between ranchers and farmers, which is neatly replicated in this historic tale. The Promised Land begins in 1755, when a poor but honest Danish military man, Ludvig Kahlen, asks the royal court to give him permission build a farm on a property in the tough Jutland moors. Upon arrival, he discovers that he’s in conflict with the local aristocrat, de Schinkel, an abusive egotist, who torments everyone around him except the woman he wants to marry, Edel, a true member of royalty but so poor that she may have to give in to him. 

Kahlen sets out to conquer the land with the illegal help of two serfs, Johannes and Ana Barbara, who have run away from de Schinkel, and the local Romani (Gypsy) “tartere” community, whom he pays to work for him. In a devastating scene, de Schinkel’s men torture Johannes to death and, the next day, the power-mad magistrate forces Kahlen to get rid of the Romani. Undaunted, Kahlen, the now widowed Ana Barbara and a feisty “tartere” girl, Anmai Mus, succeed in growing a huge crop of potatoes, some of which he sends to the King. Kahlen is then granted the title of Royal Surveyor and sent 50 settlers, which only enrages de Schinkel further. 

Much more happens. There’s betrayal and love and way too many deaths to recount in the violent, gripping final third of the film. Suffice it to say that The Promised Land meets genre expectations, keeping the narrative moving briskly while deepening our interest in the main characters, which gradually includes Anmai Mus, and, by extension, her people, who are treated abysmally by Danes and Germans. It’s heartening to see Arcel protest racism towards the Romani, a condition that exists today. 

The Promised Land was the Danish entry into the Best Foreign Language Oscars; regrettably, it didn’t qualify, though Mikkelsen has won the Best Actor prize at the European Film Awards as has cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek for his sumptuous work. Back in 2012, Arcel’s historic palace intrigue A Royal Affair, which starred Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, did make the Oscar final five in the foreign film category and won for him the Best Screenplay award at the Berlin Film Festival. So, this is a comeback for Arcel, who spent years in Hollywood making a Stephen King film, The Dark Tower, which flopped. Should he stay in Copenhagen or venture back to Hollywood? What’s certain is that the success of The Promised Land will give the Danish auteur a chance to decide where his future should lie. And that is surely a good thing.

As for The Promised Land, it’s so well made that one can only recommend it but with this proviso: you must want to enjoy an historic adventure epic.



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