Thomas Vinterberg is best known for Festen, his second feature film released in 1998 as the first production from Dogme, which he founded with Lars Van Trier. Fourteen years later, Vinterberg returns to the theme of child abuse within a tightly-wrapped part of Danish society, and again, it is with group ritual as a backdrop. In Festen, the film is about secrets that need to come out. The Hunt (Jagten in Danish), which is screened today at the London Film Festival, is about the way accusation can become the same as guilt.
In a small town in rural Denmark, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a former teacher, who had lost his job when the school was closed by budget cuts. His wife has left him, taking their teenaged son, and he now lives alone, working as an assistant in a kindergarten, where he is popular with the kids whom he obviously adores. He is especially good with Klara, the daughter of his best-friend Theo. Lucas' only social interaction comes with the members of his hunting club, which binds the men of the village together.
False accusation of child abuse has prompted a few This is The Crucible redone for a modern era, and Lucas bit by bit finds himself an outcast, losing his job, the chance of access to his son, and driving away his new girlfriend, an outsider herself as an immigrant to Denmark working at the kindergarten. The dilemma faced by Theo (played with some relish by Thomas Bo Larsson) contrasts with the complete protective turn by his wife (Susse Wold), and what makes it work is how perfectly understandable it is. It is also helped by the perfectly pitched performance of young Annike Wedderkopp as Klara, who manages to convey beyond her innocence, the sense of powerlessness as adults take things out of control. The control of the film is superb, as it builds slowly in intensity, and the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (below right, with Vinterberg) is superb. The Danish village is rendered warm at first, but increasingly cold and puritanical, while the surrounding countryside and its darkness seems to impinge more and more on it—the hunt, as it were, turned inward. When invisible assailants kill Lucas' beloved dog, and he buries her in a driving rain, the point could not be driven home more clearly.
Vinterberg does include a scene where the audience can actually relate to villains, those who feel they have to strike out at the evil-doer in their midst. In this The Hunt differs from, say, Mick Jackson's Indictment: The McMartin Trial, where the demarcation with James Woods, a lawyer-hero, is much stronger, and even The Crucible, where ulterior motives among the prosecutors are very much the case, and very much the core of the metaphor Arthur Miller was detailing. But despite the touch of melodrama in the film's biggest scene, which takes place in a church, at Christmas, when the rituals are maintained, it works as a catalyst.
Especially because of Mikkelsen's brilliant performance. He is on screen through virtually all of the film, and he is holding so much in he almost requires the audience make its own choice about him, whether to believe him or condemn him. This restraint contains a good deal of righteousness, and he simply refuses to accept his isolation from the community. Thus, even though he is eventually vindicated by law (luckily for him, his other best-friend, his son's godfather, is a lawyer and never doubts him), and rejoins the hunt club along with his son, we sense in many minds the stigma remains. The film ends with a hunt, and Vinterberg manages to avoid both melodrama and cliché, which works brilliantly. The Hunt is a superb piece of film-making, and it will be hard to find many better films in this year's LFF.