The Hunt, BFI London Film Festival

4.00

 

Actors playing against type can often either sink a film or lend it extra depth. In the case of The Hunt, a film that is nail-biting to watch despite its inherent predictability, Mads Mikkelsen gives a standout performance as the well-liked teacher falsely accused of abuse - but his reputation for icy roles, the villain in Casino Royale for instance, makes his humility and humiliation all the more striking.

It's very much an actor-led piece, which won Mikkelsen Best Actor at Cannes earlier this year and which could well see him on the Oscar nominations list come January.

Mikkelsen is Lucas, a self-effacing nursery school teacher living in a close-knit rural town in Denmark, struggling with a bitter divorce and the consequential loss of his son, who currently lives with his ex.

Nonetheless he is much loved: by his pupils, his son and his best friends, a rowdy but well-meaning band of brothers who hunt and drink together and who have been friends since childhood.

When Klara, the five-year old daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) develops a childish crush, his gentle rebuttal prompts a sense of rejection and a terrible chain of events that leads the school to believe he has sexually abused her and possibly other children too.

There's something of The Crucible in the hysteria that spreads quickly throughout the town, that same resolute belief in the innocence of children and the iron grip of fear causing almost everyone to shun him instantly.

Lucas, for the most part, is almost unbearably acquiescent, and although his trust in his friends quickly dissipates, a persistent faith in the legal system stops him from acting out. Then again, what else can he do? He is a sitting duck - or deer, as the rather heavy-handed double entendre of the title would suggest.

This is a splendid return to form for director Thomas Vinterberg, after years in the wilderness following his much feted film Festen in 1998.  It is a damning portrait of close communities, directed with a firm and patient hand, and shot with a beautiful fogginess that echoes the confusion of all the characters involved.

The few occasions where Lucas does stand up for himself, including one heart-breaking scene in the local supermarket, offers the audience a strange kind of relief. After long, tense stretches wishing you could step into this community and intervene, it's a relief to see anger, to see anything but quiet, well-meant injustice.

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