Cambodian-French director Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, which follows the story of his childhood under the Khmer Rouge regime, has been nominated for best foreign language film, taking the country to the Oscars for the first time. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony in March, we review the rivals. This week, it’s Denmark’s turn, with Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.
When it comes to the screen, Scandinavia is enjoying its belle epoque. Television dramas such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have crept onto box-set shelves all over Europe, and Danish film director Lars von Trier’s feature films Antichrist and Melancholia have earned him recent international success. In 2011, the Danish-Swedish co-production In a Better World won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The spotlight is now on Thomas Vinterberg. Long admired by film critics, his 2012 feature film The Hunt has enjoyed slow recognition internationally, and has this year been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards.
I decided to watch the film for a second time earlier this week, on a day when the production won seven Robert Awards from the Danish Film Academy. It’s completely deserving of its praise, a visual beauty about a gritty subject matter that is dealt with maturely and sensitively.
The Hunt tells the story of Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a divorced kindergarten teacher in a small town who is, based on a child’s imagination and ensuing hysteria, accused of pedophilia, and turned upon by colleagues, friends and neighbours. To make matters more complicated, that child is Klara, daughter of his best friend Theo. While referring to the witch hunt that Lucas is subjected to, the film’s title also alludes to the deer-hunting hobby he shares with his friends: a rather obvious metaphor, but one that allows exploration of a manner of topics, such as the disruption of Lucas’s involvement in a community tradition, and the question of who is the hunter and who is hunted.
The difficulty with child abuse allegations is that people are reluctant to question them. The problem has been very much at the forefront of public consciousness, in the UK at least, since the revelations about Jimmy Savile two years ago. But equally, a recent case in which a disabled man, falsely accused of pedophilia was beaten, set on fire and killed by his neighbours on the streets of Bristol, has drawn attention to the perils of untrue allegations.
This dilemma comes across well in the film, with Susse Wold portraying the accusing kindergarten teacher with a tortured look on her face, unsure how much of Klara’s story to believe. My sympathies with her wavered. Admittedly, she deals with the situation appallingly, but there is some degree of understanding with somebody whose sole job it is to ensure the welfare and protection of young children.
Beneath The Hunt’s chilling portrayal of persecution lies a more subtle commentary on the gulf between adults and children. At several points during the film we see Klara, who must be no more than seven years old, walking around the town alone. After she has implicated Lucas in her abuse, her parents cut their best friend out of their lives, but leave their child free to roam the streets and show up at his door. One has to wonder whether her attachment to Lucas and jealous accusation is related to some kind of need for a present father figure in her life, one who will walk with her and look ahead while she avoids the cracks in the pavement.
Lucas’s relationship with his teenage son, Marcus, is also touching. We first see him elated that Marcus is leaving his mother to live with him, and Marcus loyally defends his father at every step. But Lucas’s concerns for their safety drive his son away again. While the reason may be out of his control, he, too, cannot connect with his offspring.
In Vinterberg’s world, adults and children live separately, rarely interacting, rarely able to understand one another, and the idea of a child’s innocent mistake and wild imagination causing repercussions in the “grown-up world” has echoes of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel Atonement.
The Hunt’s style is noteworthy. Vinterberg’s Dogme-95 filmmaking movement, established with his contemporary von Trier, rejects overproduction, and this is evident in the film. Location is limited to one town, more specifically between three houses, a supermarket, church and the kindergarten, evoking the claustrophobia that engulfs Lucas as he becomes increasingly alone. The only relief is on the hunt, where we are treated with wonderful shots of rich Danish foliage.
Mads Mikkelsen, who won a Robert Award for his excellent acting, depicts the gradual decline of a man rebuilding his life after divorce, a man who is surrounded by friends, who has a loving relationship with his son and a job he loves. Mikkelsen’s Lucas begins the film a tower of a man; the culmination, a tense scene in a church on Christmas Eve, sees him utterly defeated. Performances are solid throughout, but Annika Wedderkopp, who plays the role of Klara, stands out as a brilliant child actor.
Verdict: It’s hard to pick faults with The Hunt, making it a strong contender for the best foreign language film. It offers ethical questions, insightful character development and beautiful cinematography, and has the ability to keep you on the edge of your seat. Its haunting overtones will also stay in your mind for days.