As luck would have it Thomas Vinterberg’s new film The Hunt, about a blameless teacher accused of interfering sexually with children in his care, finds itself released in the UK at the same time as a tabloid-driven storm of speculation is raging as to the identities of former celebrities who may or may not be guilty of paedophilia. It’s not bad timing really – at the minute it feels like pretty much any TV presenter who ever shared a settee with a minor is fair game, and Vinterberg’s film is a salutory reminder that individuals are innocent until proven guilty and that misplaced outrage, however well-intentioned, can end up ruining people’s lives.
The unfortunate whipping-boy at the centre of The Hunt is Lucas, played by Mads Mikkelsen, whose only crime is to be genuinely fond of the children at the nursery he works at and to unwittingly trigger a foolish lie from the five year old daughter of his best friend when he gently admonishes her for the over-familiar attachment she has formed on him. The girl’s capricious story of how he exposed himself to her is taken very seriously by the nursery’s head and Lucas finds himself quickly without either a job or the support of most of his friends when other children start to corroborate the fantasy. He’s arrested but released in short order once it becomes clear that there’s no evidence against him, but by then the damage is done and he’s forced to go to ground and rely on the support of his teenage son and his once remaining friend, with even the local supermarket refusing to serve him. Eventually things come to a head, and while some of the events shown may come over as a bit melodramatic there’s no doubting the raw anger of the wronged man.
Until now Vinterberg’s probably best known for Festen, one of the first films made according to the Dogme 95 rules of no artificial lighting, no imposed soundtrack and plenty of handheld camera, and interestingly that movie too hinged upon an accusation of child abuse, though there it played out mainly as black comedy. The Hunt is a lot straighter, both in the way the subject is handled and in the way it’s shot, though the directness of approach remains: this film is immediately accessible and quickly gripping, with the focus much more on the characters and the difficult choices they’re forced into than any slick cinematic oneupmanship. The tone established in the first half hour or so is gentle and warm, with Lucas set up as the friendly everyman with a gift for making friends with people – this makes the eventual slide for him into pariah status positively gut-wrenching for the audience, and there are a couple of scenes which I found very hard indeed. Nonetheless, this is an extremely worthwhile piece of work, particularly right now, for the dangers it highlights in making hasty judgements and following a mob to prove one’s one righteousness.