A winner at Cannes this year, The Hunt is a riveting exploration of social morals and mob mentality
by Edward Lawrenson
The inspiration for Thomas Vinterberg’s new film came courtesy of a psychiatrist who happened to live on the same street as the Danish filmmaker. Knowing Vinterberg as the director of Festen, the bleak, magnificent 1998 film that kick-started the Dogme 95 movement, the psychiatrist passed him notes on a number of past cases who were suffering from the false memory of a family trauma. Vinterberg waited some years before finally reading the material – unsolicited submissions rarely make for great scripts – but when he did, he found the psychiatrist’s tales hit a nerve.
Painful memories are often buried at the heart of Vinterberg’s films. In Festen, a family get-together is torn apart by the revelation of child abuse. In his last film, Submarino (2010), two brothers struggle to come to terms with the legacy of a toxic upbringing. The memory of a deeply distressing childhood event is the focus of The Hunt. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a nursery school teacher at a small village in present-day Denmark, is accused of child abuse by a young girl in his care. Prompted by the case histories brought to him by his neighbour, Vinterberg asks what happens when those accusations of abuse are in fact false.
Praised on a number of occasions for being so ‘imaginative’, Klara (a superb performance by pre-teen Annika Wedderkopp) tells her headmistress that Lucas, a friend of her parents, made sexual advances to her. She will soon retract her statement, but too late to undo the damage she has unwittingly caused. Lucas is suspended. The parents of the pupils at the school suspect him of molesting their children. He is arrested. His former wife denies him access to their teenage son.
Whereas Festen was raw and immediate and The Hunt more handsomely crafted, it is nonetheless a companion piece to Vinterberg’s breakthrough film. If Festen was all about the way a traumatic event from the past can fragment family life, then The Hunt explores how a disturbing revelation – even a false one – can bring together a community. But this is not a happy state of harmony: united in their suspicion of, then hostility towards, Lucas, his home town viciously turns against him.
Once a trusted and well-liked stalwart of village life, Lucas is shunned and exiled. A vicious mob mentality replaces the town square neighbourliness we witness at the beginning of the film. The irony is that the events unfold in the lead-up to Christmas. The resulting film plays out like a kind of bitter flipside to the joyous hymn to small town values one finds in Frank Capra’s seasonal favourite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Sealing his reputation as Denmark’s finest leading man, Mikkelsen is impressive as Lucas. In there moving portrait of a man maligned by his community, Mikkelsen and Vinterberg wisely allow the character moments of hot-headedness and pride. Guiltless he may be of the crime of abuse, but how much he is to blame for the deteriorating relationship with his local community is a question that the film – to its credit – lets the audience decide for themselves.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
The Hunt screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 14 December. Click here for more details.