Paedophilia! Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s time to talk about Thomas Vinterberg’s celebrated and sobering seasonal drama. Seasonal, yes, but far from festive. Here’s a film unlikely to trouble the yuletide TV listings in the years to come. It’s A Wonderful Life‘s reputation is secure. And whilst it’s far less likely to warm the cockles of your heart, Vinterberg’s film is worth two hours of your time.
It arrives with pitch-perfect timing. Scandinavian drama is particularly popular right now, and this depiction of the cruelties of accusation and the taint of rumour has just the right elements of dour winteriness to draw viewers away from BBC4 for a while. Mads Mikkelsen’s award-winning performance as victimised(?) teacher Lucas helps no end, and it’s a turn that’s justly praised.
Lucas lives in a small Danish community. He’s a divorcee. A quiet man. Good with children. He works at a local school with the younger children of kindergarten and primary age. He is close to his friends and has a sweet rapport with a young girl named Klara, who may possibly have learning difficulties. But one day Klara says something to another teacher about Lucas that, with crushing inevitability, will turn his world upside down. Klara quite clearly doesn’t comprehend the seriousness of her words which, when taken out of context and subtly but crucially embellished, see Lucas turned outcast as accusations of sexual abuse snowball.
Vinterberg’s film moves slowly, methodically, deliberately. Each conversation leads to the next like an awful game of telephone. It underlines the extreme importance of words. How the slightest variation in a sentence can upend it’s meaning and reception. How crucial it is that we hear what’s being said as opposed to what we want or are afraid to hear. The subject matter remains a cultural hot potato. One of the unshakeable taboos. The abuse of children is completely evil, and of course such accusations should never be treated lightly, but Vinterberg’s film also underlines how quickly accusations lead to hysteria and judgement. The townsfolk around Lucas are all-too-quick to decide what happened, what’s only been inferred becomes historical record – the Truth – until Klara herself doesn’t remember for sure.
Klara also happens to be the daughter of Lucas’ best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), and so another dynamic is brought into play as loyalties are tested. How firm a foundation does Lucas have with anyone in the town? Inevitably, when those closest to him begin to question his word he is hurt the most. This too leads Lucas to act out in ways that sadly but understandably damage his standing in the community further.
For Mikkelsen this role is a gift. In a year of notable lead performances, his is one of the standouts, and that Best Actor win at Cannes is entirely justified. In The Hunt you watch a sensitive, reclusive man slowly hurting. It’s a restrained piece of acting, one which could frequently tip over into histrionics. Mikkelsen keeps us on the right side of melodrama. Entirely believable even when insane things are happening, it’s naturalistic to a fault. You never think “wow, what a piece of acting”. You think “this man is real”. Job done. The supporting cast are all equally fine, right down to child actress Annika Wedderkopp who plays Klara.
The Hunt is well-made. The fine performances sit within a solidly executed production. On the big screen it looks lovely. Razor sharp. However, I can’t quite escape the nagging sensation that when removed from this arena, the film has little to really define itself from any number of two-hour television dramas. The scandalous subject matter is almost written into the textbook of small, achievable, brooding drama. Right there next to how a grumpy police detective solves a murder. Undeniably The Hunt is a high-end version of its type, yet it never particularly aims for anything more. Are my expectations too high? What would I prefer? I’m not sure. But as fine as everything about the film is – and Vinterberg is a fine filmmaker – the film feels a little too safe.
True, there were a couple of moments when I anticipated one thing, and the story happily turned in a different direction… but still… beyond the fine work from everyone involved I’m struggling to find that special something in The Hunt to really mark it out as exceptional. I come back to words like “fine” and “solid”. I can’t quite imagine myself needing to see it again.
But it is worth seeing. Most definitely.
Lastly, there is an element of post-production that deserves some praise. As an English-speaking resident of the UK, I of course watched the film with subtitles. I always enjoy the way in which the brain quickly melds the reading of words with the performances on screen. How quickly you forget that the two things are not one. In this instance the job of those subtitles is crucial – characters may potentially live or die based on what is said exactly – so full credit to whomever transcribed them for successfully evoking their importance. Perhaps it is in this that The Hunt truly excels. A sombre piece of work to remind us to think when we speak. And to listen also.