PURSUIT OF INNOCENCE
THIS taut, brilliant and profoundly unsettling film from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg offers a bold perspective on child sexual abuse, perhaps the dominant moral obsession of our age, at least in affluent Western societies. And could any subject be more topical with the Jimmy Savile case still making headlines in Britain, revelations of pedophilia among Catholic priests in the US (movingly recounted in Alex Gibney’s fine documentary Mia Maxima Culpa), and more than one official inquiry into abuse allegations in Australia?
The Hunt (which Vinterberg wrote with Tobias Lindholm) is fiction. But we sense that what happens to Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) could happen to anyone. The film asks us to accept that the victim in a child abuse scandal may not always be the child. He might just as easily be the accused. Lucas, a divorced, lonely and somewhat unhappy fellow, has lost his job as a schoolteacher. By good fortune he finds work in a kindergarten in a small rural Danish community, where his kindliness and natural sense of fun quickly make him a favourite with the children.
Life takes another turn for the better when he finds a new lover, a well-educated and sensitive woman from eastern Europe. But his hopes for a happier future are shattered when Klara, a child at the kindergarten, accuses him of improper behaviour.
Accuses is not really the word, as I’ll try to explain in a moment. And I’m giving nothing away when I reveal that Lucas is innocent. But The Hunt isn’t so much about Lucas’s guilt or innocence; it is not really a film about child sexual abuse itself. It is about the hysteria generated by false accusations and, in Lucas’s case, the vindictive, spiteful and increasingly menacing behaviour of the townsfolk, among them Klara’s father Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), once Lucas’s closest friend. Like the women accused of witchcraft in Arthur Miller’s play
(MA15+) ★★★★ Limited release The Crucible, Lucas has no way of proving his innocence in a climate of rabid community prejudice and hostility. And even if proof were possible, so entrenched and unforgiving is the community’s detestation of child abuse there is no way people would accept it.
So does this make Klara (who must be about five years old) the villain of the story? A child driven by pointless malice and a taste for mischievous storytelling? Not really. The great strength of Vinterberg’s film is in showing us that Klara, too, is the victim of social and parental pressures. The Hunt has a terrifying plausibility. Yes, we can see how such things might happen, how such dreadful misunderstandings might arise. Klara is not a vindictive child; she has a generous nature. But she lives in a community where boisterous male bonding rituals are not uncommon, where the men (Lucas included) like to strip naked and take icy dips in winter waters, where male erections may be glimpsed at odd moments, and where children such as Klara can easily be exposed to explicit sexual images on an iPad.
One day, after some romping and horseplay with a group of children, Klara plants a kiss on Lucas’s lips. We take it to be a loving gesture. Then, out of peevishness, she takes offence when Lucas turns down an offered gift. But she doesn’t rush off to the kindergarten principal (Susse Wold) to accuse Lucas of sexual abuse or indecent exposure.
Grethe, the principal, a kindly and sensible woman, nevertheless suspects that something is troubling Klara. Under questioning, the child will say nothing against Lucas, but Grethe isn’t satisfied. A counsellor is brought in and the girl is questioned relentlessly. Are you sure Lucas didn’t do this? Are you sure he didn’t show you his willie? Eventually, to please her inquisitors, Klara gives a little nod of the head. It’s enough; the police are called, Lucas is arrested and questioned. But even when Klara confides later (to her mother, to Grethe, to Lucas himself) that ‘‘ I just said something foolish’’, no one wants to believe her. Soon stories are coming in from other parents reporting ‘‘ symptoms of abuse’’ in their children — though what these symptoms are is never clear.
Vinterberg has dealt with similar themes before. His 1998 film Festen was about the reunion of a dysfunctional family who have gathered for the 60th birthday party of the family patriarch. During the after-dinner speeches the man’s son calmly reveals that he and his twin sister were sexually abused by their father. Festen was shocking because we assumed the father was guilty; The Hunt is shocking because we know Lucas is innocent.
That absence of ambiguity is what distinguishes The Hunt from Patrick Shanley’s compelling 2008 film Doubt, set in a New York parish school. We are never sure whether Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest is a pedophile, or whether his nemesis, the nun played by Meryl Streep, is motivated by envy (or some kind of sexual neurosis).
The performances in The Hunt seem to me flawless. The European cinema has no more charismatic male star than Mikkelsen, whom we’ve seen in roles as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, as the 18th-century physician and courtly schemer in that fine historical drama A Royal Affair, and as one of the scariest Bond villains (he with the bleeding eyes) in Casino Royale. In The Hunt he gives us a magnificent, wounding portrait of fortitude and desperation, tempered by flashes of good humour. Annika Wedderkopp is beautifully subdued and convincing as the child (as troubled, in her