PUR­SUIT OF IN­NO­CENCE

The Hunt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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