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'The Hunt' review: Mads Mikkelsen shines in witch-hunt drama

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Released on Friday, Nov 30 2012

Director: Thomas Vinterberg; Screenwriter: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm; Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold; Running time: 115 mins; Certificate: 15


Festen director Thomas Vinterberg made a long-delayed and triumphant comeback at Cannes this year with The Hunt, a drama that plays like a perfectly opposed mirror image to its 1998 predecessor. Festen began with an accusation of sexual abuse and chronicled the process of denial that followed it; The Hunt begins with the same accusation, and chronicles the ease with which an entire town believes it.

Mads Mikkelsen earned the 'Best Actor' award at Cannes for his impeccably restrained performance as falsely accused schoolteacher Lucas, who we're introduced to as a well-liked and sociable member of his small town community. He's a good and supportive teacher to his young students, he mucks in boisterously with the local men's macho drinking and swimming, and strikes up a tentative romance with spunky local girl Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport).

After Lucas offers one troubled child, Klara (a strikingly poised Annika Wedderkopp), a kind word, she responds by kissing him. He reacts appropriately, gently suggesting that she focus on boys her own age, but she's fixated on him and, feeling rejected, her love turns seamlessly into hate. With the school's busybody headmistress hanging on her every word, Klara dreams up an accusation of abuse.

She's plainly over-imaginative and the lie is no more than a passing whim to her, but once out it spreads uncontrollably through the close-knit town like a virus, demolishing people's capacity for reason and logic and loyalty. Lucas is first ostracised, then openly attacked, and as the persecution escalates into sadism, Mikkelsen remains heartbreakingly stoical. His dignity only makes the stifling injustice of it all that much more profound; you want him to rage and rail against what's happening, and instead you're forced to do it for him.

stills from 'The Hunt'


Vinterberg seems to be exploring the idea that people need to believe in the myth of children as innocents. The repeated refrain, first among the teachers at Lucas's school and later among the townspeople at large, is that "children don't lie", and the plain absurdity of this notion doesn't register for a moment.

Neither of Klara's parents can contemplate her story being anything other than the truth, despite the fact that Lucas has been best friends with her father for years. Friendship is the most distressing casualty of the mob mentality in The Hunt, and the film's shattering climactic sequence - in a church on Christmas Eve - resolves this more than anything.

Six months on from its Cannes debut, The Hunt has taken on a new meaning for viewers in the UK that Vinterberg could not possibly have predicted. It's been demonstrated all too clearly to us this month just how easily and swiftly a false accusation can gather steam, and how devastating a momentary lapse in judgement can be.

Klara, who seems more clear-eyed about the situation than anyone else in the town, tries to retract her accusation once she realises its impact, and is told, chillingly, that her memory is playing tricks on her; that she has blocked out what happened. The lie has become bigger than her, and the adults around her no longer care what the original truth was. There are echoes of Ian McEwan's novel (and later Joe Wright's film) Atonement in the childish accusation, and of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs in the community's violent response.

There's something a shade too neat about the coda, never quite addressing the full ramifications of what's come before, but the final image will linger with you. The Hunt is a terrifying film, anchored by Mikkelsen's poignantly poised turn and saturated with uncomfortable truths about society, childhood and our susceptibility to mass hysteria.

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