Girl likes boy. Girl kisses boy. Boy politely declines. Girl gets upset and embellishes events out of hurt. No doubt this scenario is all too familiar – whether we have been on the receiving end or the aggressive end. But In The Hunt, girl is 5 years old and boy is her forty-year-old nursery school teacher.
A tiny town in the Danish hinterland – where weekend high-jinx consist of hunting for deer in the beautiful woods of autumn followed by good old-fashioned merry making around a table with songs and ale – is the insular locale of Jagten, where a couple of childish sentences uttered out of spite spiral into a full-blown witch-hunt.
On Friday 30 November, the inerrable Curzon Soho laid on a special screening to kick off the film’s run in the UK where the film’s creator and writer Thomas Vinterberg would be present (via Skype from his hotel room in Malta). We spoke to the director before he went on to the European Film Awards ceremony to pick up the prize with Tobias Lindholm for Best Screenwriter, as well as receiving nominations in the Best Editor, Actor, Director and Film categories.
Stylistically, The Hunt reminded me of David O Russell’s The Fighter where another small town setting also sets a-simmering family furors, fervour and friction. But the loud East Coast American hot-headedness of the Eklund family in the latter could not be a starker contrast to Mads Mikkelsen’s stoicism in Lucas – the wrongly accused. Cursorily glancing through reviews of Prague – another Mads film from 2006 – I saw reference made to how Mikkelsen manages to beam across so much emotion with the smallest apparent effort. And it’s true. Softer, gentler and less working class than Vinterberg originally wrote the character – making him “more Scandinavian” to quote the director – Lucas epitomises that reserve the Danes know themselves to have.
Enter his Nursery school co-teacher Nadja – dark skin, long curly hair, fiery Eastern European spirit. Hailing from a land where political correctness is still waiting to be conceived. Perhaps the voice of reason, the reality check in this isolated population and rebellion against the emotional repression and herd mentality of the majority of that town who want Lucas for dead.
A place that Vinterberg sees as still having that ability to allow an adult and child to hold hands and for that to be normal – something completely lost in today’s Denmark, and much of Western Society.
Vinterberg is used to being bold. His 1998 work Festen showed us that much already. In The Hunt it is bold of him to show such a young girl kissing an adult on the lips. (Oh how Annika Wedderkopp, who plays the little Klara, will live to cherish the thought of smooching the wondrous Mads in years to come). It is bold that he gets us supporting the one who is accused of “pointing his rod” at a child. And bolder still that he has Lucas’ friends cracking the paedo jokes mere seconds after he has stepped out of the taxi from the police station after having been cleared and is hugging his son in reunion.
And there was no way of planning The Hunt to coincide with last month’s Jimmy Saville scandal – the fact that the film does not take the kid’s side of the story only makes it look ever more daring. The film assassinates those people who want a person to be guilty of such monstrosities and will leap at any chance to label someone a kiddy fiddler. For when a vulnerable being’s safety is at risk, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Well, The Hunt challenges this notion head on – like a bullet between the eyes of a deer.
If this were Hollywood – ok, I know there would never, ever be a Hollywood film made about a) a pedophile and b) a paedophile who wasn’t guilty, but hear me out – Lucas would be cleared and he would go on with life has if nothing had happened, the hero once more. But despite being released, being reunited with his best friend and a very mature make-up with Klara, his life has been ruined forever.
Vinterberg takes us out of our comfort zone by giving us situations that are so normal, situations we have been in countless times. In Festen – a landmark of Danish cinema, declared by one member of the audience to the director that the Dogme 95 film was just as life-changing for her as Russian’s very own Dostoevsky – it was a father’s 60th birthday party that turns into a diabolically awkward expose of his history of buggering his children.
This time, it is a non-descript town where everyone knows each other and there is nowhere to hide. It is so easy for us to imagine ourselves living these nightmares. In Jagten, whisper-whispers and incessant stares during the Carol service become too much for Lucas to bear and he shatters the Juletide lull by confronting Klara’s parents head-on. The social awkwardness of the consequences is almost too much for a Brit to bear!
Thomas Bo Larsen is excellent as the rougher, tougher half of the best-friendship: age, a beard and a gruff voice have turned him from the rakish, skinny scumbag he was in Festen to the taciturn father of Klara and the very opposite in body and character to our dream-boat Lucas.
Wedderkopp is precocious and a little Carey Mulligan in the making with her quiet intelligence. Mikkelsen may be superb but this young lady is the film’s hidden secret. And she definitely has the awe and respect of Vinterberg.
Lucas and Klara’s on screen chemistry – if we dare call it that – is brilliant and mature way beyond the little girl’s years. When they do become friends again, they make up in such a grown-up way that there is little doubt that Wedderkopp is very much Mikkelsen’s equal, despite the latter being awarded Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for the role.
Perhaps the most impactful moment in the film is where Theo teases Lucas about how he can always tell when he is lying because his left eye twitches. And then when Nursery school teacher and family friend are trying to glean particulars from the little girl, we see the same eye twitching – and some added nose sniffing – from Klara as she answers affirmative to whether or not Lucas showed her his tissemand.
Vinterberg, who “grew up among genitals’, (his words not mine) mourns the loss of an innocence that could have existed before communities had blood lust and satisfaction from sacrifices. A very astute observation by another member of the audience was that The Hunt is an antithesis of Festen. In the earlier film, it is parents and adults that are piled with the blame of deranging their children. In The Hunt it is children who wreck the lives of adults… despite the Danish saying “children and drunk men speak the truth”!
So why not shoot The Hunt in that seminal Dogme 95 tradition (documentary, in-the-thick-of-it style of film making) that was all the rage fifteen odd years back? Well, it would not have been appropriate given how essential it was for us to be up close and personal to our main man throughout the whole two hours, says Vinterberg. The Hunt has a pensiveness and poise about it reminiscent of Susanne Bier’s In A Better World. It is even in the names: the party (literally festen in Danish) vs. the silence and slow motion required in a hunt.
I have not often experienced such audible reactions from the people sitting around me – gasps, groans and cries of anguish. When the microphone was handed to me to pose the director my question, brain and mouth came stuck – deer in the headlights one may say – and I sufficed with praising him and thanking him for such an outstanding movie. “Let all the questions be like this one!” he joked back.
See it soon: this film deserves every inch of big-screen viewing. And if you fancy a giggle, click here for a totally misconstrued interpretation of the film written by who I thought was a man. Turns out it is by a woman!