The Hunt (Jagten), 116 mins, rated MA15+, opens 2 May 2013


(This is my review as published in the May issue of the NSW

Every now and again, a film comes along which raises the question of why we go to the cinema. Is it just to be “entertained”? Or does film have a more important role? Cinema is one of the newer art forms: it began at the end of the 19th century, and has been with us for only about 120 years. And yet great films can be truly great art. Cinema may have begun as just a “pastime”, or an amusement, but filmgoers soon discovered that cinema also has the capacity to move us, to educate us, and even to make us angry.

The Danish film The Hunt is such a film. Its subject is a tough one: a kindergarten teacher is accused of sexually abusing one of the children, and the accusation comes from a 5-year-old girl. Immediately, the question arises: do I really want to see a film on such a difficult subject? The Hunt is not what I call a “Friday Night Film”, something to see at the end of a hard week. It is a film to see when you are prepared to be provoked and emotionally stirred.

Lawyers, in particular, will engage with this film, as it raises various issues of evidence, pre-trial processes, techniques for questioning children, the need for timely legal advice, and even – obliquely – the right to remain silent. The film keeps the actual legal process in the background (we never really see a lawyer, except perhaps in the wings in one scene), but the legal process runs its course anyway. In a way, that aspect of the film is even more upsetting: as a lawyer, I wanted to scream at Lucas, the accused teacher: “Protect yourself! Get a lawyer! Now!”

In telling the story the director makes an important choice – a Hitchcockian choice.  Danish director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration/ Festen, 1998), like Hitchcock, avoids the whodunit question. He lets us know right away that the teacher is innocent: that the little girl has made up a story. We are relieved of the distraction of deciding whether he did it, and we are free to scrutinize the actions of all of the people in Lucas’ life: his friends and family, those in his school and in his close-knit small-town community. But because we know he is innocent, we struggle with him. It becomes excruciating.

Lucas is played by Mads Mikkelson. He was seen last year in A Royal Affair (Nicolaj Arcel), but is better known for his role as Bond villain “Le Chiffre” in Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell). It’s a powerful performance: lively and likeable at first, and then gradually more closed-down as his life begins to spiral out of control. And finally a floodgate of emotion is unleashed. Mikkelson has both strength and stillness, which makes him magnetic on-screen. He won Best Actor at Cannes in 2012 for this role.

The performance of the little girl, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), is astonishing. She is utterly convincing as a seemingly innocent child with a tragic vindictive streak, her actions deriving in part from the carelessness of a family friend. Young Lasse Fogelstrom also impresses as Marcus, the teenage son from Lucas’ broken marriage. Thomas Bo Larsen gives a nuanced performance as Lucas’ oldest friend, Theo, who is also Klara’s father.

What’s particularly interesting about this film is the way the director portrays a small group of people, many of whom have known each other all their lives, suddenly questioning everything they’ve ever known about one of their own. From an angry little girl saying a “foolish thing” (as she herself describes it several times) which the adults latch onto, events escalate relentlessly into a modern-day witch-hunt.

Vinterberg shows us a community that believes that when the crime is child sexual abuse, there is no need for due process: the important thing is to find and punish the accused. In effect, he is showing why the rule of law is a vital part of our society, even when – perhaps especially when – it competes with the need to protect our children.