'Won't somebody please think of the children?!'

The Hunt
(Denmark, 111 min.)
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Writ. Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold, Alexandra Rapaport.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen). Courtesy of Charlotte Bruus Christensen
“Won't somebody please think of the children?!”
-Helen Lovejoy, "The Simpsons"
“They say children never lie,” observes a character in The Hunt as the film reaches the turning point of its drama. Even road signs on the 401 observe that children are precious and, hence, are reason for adults to use caution, but even the most earnest and gullible of guardians should know that not every child is a sweet innocent angel. Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), for example, is a regular Briony Tallis in Thomas Vinterberg’s maddening The Hunt. She’s a naïve little storyteller and a troubled, if neglected, brat. One little word sends all the Helen Lovejoys of her small churchgoing town into a tizzy and Klara becomes the key witness in a near-comical case of mass hysteria.

The object of Klara’s scorn is her well-meaning and gentle kindergarten teacher Lucas, played by Mads Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair, “Hannibal”). Lucas, in addition to being Klara’s teacher, is also the best friend of her father, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), and he becomes something of a doting father figure to her after he loses touch with his son following a nasty divorce. Klara takes his attention a bit too strongly, though, and she mistakes some sound advice as a rebuff of her affection. Klara, like Briony after reading the letters C-U-N and T in Robbie’s love letter to her sister Cecilia, turns their relationship on its head and spins a foul lie that ruins Lucas’s life.

The crime in The Hunt might not be Klara’s nasty fib, but rather the ludicrous ripple effect that ensues thanks to an elder who herself admits that Klara has a penchant for storytelling and is not a reliable source. The Hunt loses much of its credibility thanks to the ludicrous mishandling of the matter by Gerthe the schoolmarm, who does the opposite of what any logical person of authority would presumably do in such a sticky situation. Gerthe, played by Susse Wold, shows not a hint of discretion as she advises Lucas of the situation, but refuses to say what the serious charge is and which student is making the claim (and yet she lets him finish the workday…). Gerthe, channelling the whacky moral panic of Helen Lovejoy, then puts unwavering belief in Karla’s testimony after she enlists the help of a dodgy colleague.

Lucas finally decides to confront his superior after she tells everyone in town about the allegation, save for the police and Lucas himself. The Hunt impressively shows the stigma and presumption of guilt that arises when unspeakable charges are uttered, but this potentially provocative territory approaches comedy when Gerthe flees the schoolhouse like a ninny, throwing toys and garbage at Lucas as she insists in her belief in the kids’ allegations. At this point the accusations have snowballed into a classroom of victims, as Gerthe announces the matter at a PTA meeting and states that the danger is probably plural. It’s reasonable to believe that any situation that sees children at risk will be prone to overreaction, brash decisions, and mass hysteria, but The Hunt handles a completely plausible premise with wholly unbelievable convolutedness. Any credibility flies out the window by the end when the townspeople—and Lucas—give abrupt reversals.

The drama is simply too heavy-handed and twisted to tolerate. Lucas, despite being shaken by the allegations, fights the charges far too passively. He doesn’t even consult a lawyer! The script by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, moreover, takes an annoyingly elusive tone as all the characters dance about the subject, talking about things with scripted indirectness and implication, yet grasping the meaning of all the things that go unsaid.

Vinterberg, moreover, leaves the audience with the awkward task of vilifying a child in order to sympathize with the film’s protagonist. Karla, who often comes off as a Danish Damien, is also a victim of sorts, as the film’s opening act sees her routinely abandoned by her parents. Her vulnerability and confusion in no way excuses her actions, but she deserves a little sympathy. The tricky situation of finding common ground between Lucas and Klara creates an atmosphere of Hanekean discomfort. Vinterberg crafts an impeccable crafted tone for The Hunt, although it could leave many viewers squirming until the very end.

The preposterous witch hunt is often torturous, but Mikkelsen makes Lucas a wholly compelling and sympathetic victim in spite of his reserved passivity. The final act of The Hunt, which sees Lucas’s psyche fade and crumble, is a tour-de-force for the actor. (It’s easy to see how Mikkelsen scored the Best Actor prize for the film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The scene at the church, in which Lucas confronts the hypocrisy of his friends and neighbours, is one of the most moving and impeccably acted scenes this year. Mikkelsen’s fine performance makes The Hunt doubly frustrating, however, because it deserves a better film in which to shine.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Hunt is currently playing in Toronto at Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne August 16th.