Captivating and relentless, The Hunt is a sure-footed examination of some very difficult subject matter.
218For a movie that's won no less than 9 awards and a BAFTA nomination, you would be forgiven for raising an inquisitive eyebrow at the mention of Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt. It's kept a relatively low profile since it's initial run at the festivals back in 2012, where it picked up numerous nominations, including winning Best Actor at Cannes for Mads Mikkelson's portrayal of the quiet suburban teacher, Lucas. Surprisingly enough, it just hasn't managed to get the limelight it truly deserves in this country, despite the UK's infatuation with Danish drama of late. Barely a month or two in more local or art-house cinemas is all it received, for which it's distributers should really be ashamed.
The Hunt is a sure-footed examination of how adults display an almost puritanical position when it comes to children, and that their protective instinct can very easily outweigh any form of common sense when it comes to a child's innocence. It's a heavy and precarious topic no matter what angle you come at it from, and The Hunt is a bold statement in a fraught and dangerous minefield of subject matter, but one that absolutely pulls it off with class, sophistication and confidence.
The story follows that of Lucas (Mads Mikkelson), a former school teacher who now works as a nursery school assistant in a sleepy suburban town in Denmark. Lucas leads a relatively lonely life with his beloved dog, Fanny. It's never made completely clear how Lucas finds himself in his current situation, but we can assume that his divorce was less than amicable from the fact that he is not allowed to contact his ex wife. This makes arrangements for seeing his son more difficult, despite the fact that his son is clearly keen to see him. Constantly frustrated by the day to day struggle over the custody of his son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm). What little happiness he tends to find comes largely from still being able to help out in the local nursery, something he takes an obvious innocent joy from. He's a gentle man, an honest man, and an instantly likeable man.
We pick up Lucas' story just when things seem to be going particularly well for him. His ex wife finally agrees to allow their son to go and live with him, and Lucas meets a love interest in one of his colleagues at the nursery. One of the children that Lucas helps look after at the nursery happens to be his best friend's daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). Klara is a sweet and gentle little girl, who seems to struggle slightly with social interactions. She is also mildly obsessive compulsive, and Lucas often helps her overcome problems, such as crossing a room without stepping on any cracks in the floor. Klara develops a close bond with Lucas, and she see's her father's best friend as a fond figure in her life.
Whilst playing one day, Klara's affections towards Lucas make him feel particularly uncomfortable. He addresses the situation with care, and handles it as well as any teacher could ever hope to. However, to the fragile mind of a socially challenged little girl, having outward displays of affection spurned by their intended target has a dramatic affect. Klara is extremely upset that she has been effectively “told off” by Lucas. Just as we thought things couldn't get going much better for Lucas, Klara makes a comment about Lucas to the headteacher at the nursery – one that implies that Lucas has been indecent towards her. Taking the matter very seriously, headteacher Grethe (Susse Wold) plays things by the book. Lucas is sent away while investigations are carried out.
Over the next few days, things become terribly distorted as Lucas remains at home and adults fawn over the tales told by Klara. Suddenly other children at the school begin to tell similar tales about Lucas, all imitating the story that has erupted throughout the playground. Soon, overwhelmed with guilt at having seen how Lucas has become an outcast, not just from her own family, but from the entire town, Klara tries to retract her initial claim that Lucas was indecent towards her, stating that she simply “said something foolish” and that “he didn't do anything” to her Mother. Of course, things have gone so far by now that the adults believe this is some sort of a defence mechanism, and that Klara simply does not want to remember what Lucas did. So convincing is an adult's persuasion that even Klara is uncertain now if Lucas had or had not been indecent. The danger of little white lies to attract attention is always evident as we watch Lucas battle with his innocence against, not just the authorities, but his girlfriend, his son, and his best friends. It's a humiliating experience that creates enormous frustration for him as he tries to clear his name, and can turn to only a handful of people who believe his innocence.
It's an illuminating exposé into how adults blindly protect their children. So overwhelmed with an instinct to protect their children, the townsfolk hear one tale, and suddenly it snowballs beyond all recognition, becoming distorted and manipulated as it thunders, crashing through an innocent man's life. The Hunt is utterly captivating. It's complimented not only by a deft hand behind the camera in Thomas Vinterberg, who back in 1995, formed the Dogme 95 movement along with revered avant-garde filmaker, Lars VonTrier, but also with it's excellent cast. It's unsurprising that Vinterberg completed The Hunt with such a confident vein of certainty running through it, since his first movie under the Dogme manifesto covered similar topics, focussing on sexual abuse. However, with The Hunt, one of it's intriguing notions is that Vinterberg decided to be much more revealing of his characters from the outset. With many movies on this particular subject, we are either given a clear villain from the outset, or, perhaps more commonly, the audience is invited to peruse evidence and impart judgement on a movie's characters themselves. The Woodsman (2004) is a perfect example, and makes no effort to diguise the fact that the main charcter is guilty, despite painting a story more of pity than hate, daring us to feel sorry for Kevin Bacon.
The prolifically controversial and antagonistic Doubt (2008) chose to ask questions rather than reveal answers as to Phillip Syemore-Hoffman's innocence, something which I found eternally frustrating if I'm honest. It's standard fare for such a complicated and divisive issue to tackle in a movie. Not so here – from the outset, and without ever having to hammer the message home clumsily or use brute force direction to remove all doubt from the audience, we are certain of Lucas' innocence. He is the victim of a child's innocent infatuation. We get to watch as his life spirals beyond all recognition before his eyes, everything happening with him no more than a spectator, helpless, unable to affect things but for the worse.
The success of The Hunt relies heavily on the director's ability to make us care about Lucas, the main protagonist, but it's Mads Mikkelson's breathtaking performance that truly captivates us throughout. Since his days as the evil Bond villain who cries tears of blood, Le Chiffre, Mikkelson has been involved in some rather varied material. From the bleak and blood-curdling Valhalla Rising, to the more colourful and explosive Clash of the Titans, it's fair to say he has been busy. Nothing could have prepared me for how utterly convincing he plays Lucas in The Hunt. It's a real masterclass in playing a role with an understated and naturalistic slant. Of course there are moments when scripting and direction may have hindered his performance in the movie, but nothing too detrimental, and it always feels like he has room to breathe in the role.
Klara is played brilliantly by Annika Wedderkopp too. There are moments when any child actor would have struggled beyond all capability with this role, but we really get a sense that Wedderkopp, despite being perhaps no more than 5 or 6 years old, seems to have enough understanding of the role she is playing to enable her to react extremely convincingly. There are some very difficult scenes for her to play too, which I found quite difficult to watch, but as far as child-actors go, we can only hope that Wedderkopp has a bright future ahead of her.
Both captivating and relentless, The Hunt relies on a steady-handed coherency to tell it's frustrating and sad story. It's a positively memorable movie that is without question one of the best international movies of the year so far. I know we're only in April now, and it was late March when The Hunt hit the shelves, but even with such a long way to go, I suspect film-makers across the globe will struggle to piece together such a competent and well structured movie. Complimented with an array of cast-members that all seem totally believable and extremely relaxed in their roles, it's undoubtedly one of the most realistic representations on this very difficult subject matter. I have no doubt that anyone bold enough to give this one a go will not be disappointed at all, and will likely go on to recommend this little gem of foreign cinema to others – something that might in future help to increase distribution of such titles to reach the much wider audience it deserves. I've given it an excellent 9 out of 10, but you could easily add that additional point on for the completists among you out there.
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