Film review: Mads Mikkelsen puts on fine performance in The Hunt

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 5, 2013 

Review Drama


110 minutes/Opens tomorrow/*** 1/2

The story: Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a divorced father living in a small Danish town and working as a kindergarten teacher. His best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and he enjoy drinking and hunting. One day, Theo's daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), enrolled in Lucas's school, tells the principal about an event, one that will change Lucas' life.

This horror story plays out slowly, in a sun-dappled, leafy Danish village that epitomises the Scandinavian Dream.

An adult male (Mikkelsen) is a kindergarten teacher, working happily with female colleagues, looking after well-adjusted, healthy children. Lucas loves his community, and they love him back.

Lucas is part of a group of men fond of manly things. They hunt deer, swim nude in icy lakes and afterwards, sing beer-drinking songs through the night.

Denmark seems to have progressed beyond stifling sex roles. Lucas, a divorced father of a teen son who lost his high school teaching job, can work in a pre-school and no-one in the community bats an eyelid.

Director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg turns the screws of tension slowly and naturalistically. A bump, a bit of horseplay and then a little girl prone to fantasy tells adults a story she thinks they want to hear. Lucas, an innocent man, is accused of child molestation.

Vinterburg, like his compatriot and co-founder of the Dogme 95 school of back-to-basics film-making Lars von Trier, is fascinated by the bland, 9-to-5 nature of evil. Chaos hides in the seams of everyday life. It pops out like a grinning demon because normal people - in this case Lucas' principal, education officials and parents - want only what is best for children.

Vinterburg based this film on real cases of men accused of sex crimes against children.

Here, there is more than a hint of playwright Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the classic stage play about the Salem witch-hunts of the 1600s.

Miller himself wrote the classic play in response to the McCarthyist communist hysteria that was sweeping 1950s America.

Vinterburg does not draw exact moral parallels between paedophile phobia and the Red Scare, however. For example, it matters that Lucas is innocent. Sexual crimes against children are not a rights and freedom issue, the same way political and religious persecutions tend to be.

But what is similar is the irrationality of the response to a threat that short-circuits the adult mind.

Vinterburg does not turn Lucas' persecutors into nutty paranoids or foaming-mouthed witch-hunters.

They are normal, liberal, Northern European folk, acting on their doubts and fears.

If there is a fault with this film, it is that the character of Lucas is a rationalist saint, willing to become a martyr for the cause if necessary.

Luckily, Mikkelsen is a fine enough actor that Lucas becomes human, a man as foolishly stubborn as he is principled about staying on in a village to clear his name, even if most of its inhabitants would rather he be gone or dead.

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