Mads Mikkelsen, the craggy-faced, testosterone-fueled film star from Copenhagen, is Denmark’s most iconic export since Hans Christian Anderson and Hamlet. As versatile as he is imposing, he might be best known to American audiences as television’s most brooding, laid-back serial killer, in the series Hannibal, but he has demonstrated range and dramatic skill in a series of carefully chosen feature-film roles, including the unforgettable villain Le Chiffre in the James Bond thriller Casino Royale and the tortured titular composer in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. Now comes his most sensitive portrayal to date, in writer-director Thomas (The Celebration) Vintenberg’s The Hunt, as a sensitive kindergarten teacher whose life is ruined after he is falsely accused of inappropriately fondling his best friend’s daughter. For his deeply affecting role that haunts the viewer long after the film ends, Mr. Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s like Jack Palance with sex appeal.
Lucas is a big, powerful but mild-mannered man in a small provincial town who works as a day care worker while tirelessly struggling with his vengeful ex-wife to see more of his estranged teenage son, Marcus. Lucas has his problems, but he’s a respected member of the community and a devoted friend to his buddies Theo and Bruun, who organizes the men’s annual hunting trips. He also has a special affection for the kids in his charge at school, especially Theo’s little girl Klara, a precocious child with a dangerous imagination who clings to Lucas like a surrogate father. After kissing him on the lips one day when he walks her home from school, Klara suffers feelings of pain and rejection, making up childish fantasies that arouse the suspicions of the foolish, incompetent head of the day care center. One bit of irresponsible gossip follows another, until Lucas slowly finds himself innocently accused of pedophilia.
“Children never lie,” the adults insist, as the allegations fuel a contemporary witch hunt, spreading lies and innuendo through the community like a spark to gasoline, turning gentle Lucas’s lifelong friends and neighbors against him and turning him into a tormented pariah. Unlike the nasty schoolgirl in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, who wrecked the lives of a pair of beloved teachers when she spread rumors that they were lesbians, little Klara doesn’t even remember what she said, but Lucas watches, alone and defenseless, as his life collapses. His girlfriend deserts him. He loses his job. The grocer refuses to sell him food. The police are summoned. Soon the other children are embellishing stories of their own, and a good man is forced to fight for his reputation, his integrity and his sanity.
My one caveat is that the cruelty and ignorance leveled at a long-established pillar of the town seems almost diabolically contrived. The fallout suffers from an almost total lack of intelligence and logic, as the only person who stands by Lucas is his son Marcus, who bucks authority to show his love. But Lucas is a totally sympathetic role, and Mr. Mikkelsen plays it without a trace of maudlin self-pity, while Mr. Vinterberg (a more confident director, vastly superior to his Dogme colleague Lars von Trier) builds atmosphere and holds emotions in check, including the wrenching scenes in which Lucas buries his faithful dog in the rain or shows up at church on Christmas Eve to admonish his neighbors for their hypocrisy. It’s to the star’s immense credit that his spellbinding appeal provides a tension that the script’s funereal pace often lacks. The movie ends a year later, on the day when boys are declared men with the advent of their first big-game hunt. Everything seems to have changed. Lucas is again reinstated in the community, and then something happens to give you the feeling that one hunt will end, but the consequences of the other hunt might continue. A disturbing, controversial antidote to the general tedium of summer movies.
Written by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen and Annika Wedderkopp
Running time: 115 mins.
Rating: 3/4 stars