Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp 15A cert, Cineworld/IFI/IMC Dún Laoghaire/Light House/Screen, Dublin, 115 min
THOMAS VINTERBERG’S thrilling melodrama, a hit at Cannes, arrives in cinemas at a particularly appropriate moment. It’s not just that The Hunt is among the grimmest Christmas movies ever made. The Danish picture also has to do with one of the season’s hot-button topics: insecure accusations of child abuse and the manner of their propagation.
As it happens, The Hunt has little to say about the insidious power of silly social media applications. The protagonist, a teacher, is destroyed by old-school analogue gossip. One would not be altogether surprised to hear that the script had been lifted – with only minor tweaking – from a recently discovered Ibsen play.
The irresistible Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a well-liked employee at a Danish kindergarten. He is recently divorced, but gets on swimmingly well with his equally good-natured son. Weekends are spent scaring up slightly clumsy metaphors at an elegant hunting lodge: the unfortunate deer come to stand in for the harassed Lucas. Everything begins to turn ghastly when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of his pupils, blunders her way into suggesting that some inappropriate contact has taken place.
Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, his co-writer, ask us to believe that – instinctively and understandably inclined towards supporting the children – teachers and social workers could subconsciously conspire to implant false memories in the supposed victim’s mind.
Cobbled together from real cases, the script just about convinces us that this could be so. A perverse impulse drives otherwise decent people into believing that any questioning of any accusation constitutes a betrayal of the children.
Back in the groove after a few misfires, Vinterberg, is generous towards all his characters. When Lucas’s best friend, the girl’s father, eventually shuns the accused man, we sense the appalling conflict bubbling in his conscience. Who would dare to side with a man whose name has been mentioned in the same sentence as these most troubling of offences?
The Hunt is admirably forgiving of Klara. Swept along by a tide of ill-feeling, she comes across as another victim of the Kafkaesque fervour. In one of the film’s most touching scenes (though not the saddest) she calls round to see Lucas, now completely ostracised, to ask innocently after his friendly, goofy Labrador. Lucas shows no malice to the unfortunate child.
The pace of Lucas’s decline from admired professional to utter pariah does seem a little hard to credit. In October he is everyone’s pal. By Christmas even the butcher refuses to sell him his chops. The sense of a tight community that still chatters over walls is – for the menace on display – just a little quaint.
Never mind. The telescoping of plot allows Vinterberg to rattle up the tension at a dizzying rate. After giving us Festen in 1998 (can it really be so long?), the director drifted towards avant-garde projects such as the underrated Dear Wendy and the baffling It’s All About Love. With its thumping plot points and unstoppable momentum, The Hunt marks an entirely unexpected and largely successful embrace of mainstream values.
The director is greatly aided in those endeavours by Mikkelsen. To this point, the actor has found himself playing cold fish and outright maniacs. Vinterberg allows Mads to radiate hitherto unexploited degrees of warmth as a man who, despite trying desperately hard to do the right thing, finds the civilised world increasingly willing to march on his house with flaming torches. His best actor prize at Cannes was deserved.
If ever there were a film that looked doomed to suffer remake by Hollywood, it is The Hunt. Though Vinterberg’s picture does sometimes overheat, it demands to be seen before events are transported to Des Moines. The most gripping film of the month.