It’s been fourteen years since Thomas Vinterberg, he of the Danish Dogme 95 manifesto, made a truly great film. His Festen was the crowning achievement of the collective, and whilst his contemporary Lars von Trier went on to do more remarkable things, Vinterberg became a victim of his own success and almost vanished off from the map of cinema. His return to filmmaking with the blistering The Hunt is also a return to form – a prodigal act that redeems his past failures, re-establishing Vinterberg as one of Europe’s most astute, socially perceptive filmmakers working today. We welcome him back with open arms.
Essentially the antithesis of Festen, where a family patriarch is guilty of inflicting sexual abuse, Vinterberg turns the drama around this time in The Hunt, setting out clearly from the beginning that this about an innocent man wrongly accused of paedophilic acts. If that sounds like headline-grabbing controversy to you, that’s because it’s a timely portrayal of an explosive subject matter that never fails to rouse and inflame papers like the Daily Mail and its readers. What starts as a petty, inconsequential lie (five-year old student accuses primary school teacher of exhibiting his erection) escalates into an insanely inflammatory small-town exposé, the entire congregation of authorities, school staff, parents and shopkeepers unanimously condemns an easy scapegoat in the form of Mads Mikkelsen’s schoolteacher Lucas – the figurative witch being burned alive in this moralistic witch-hunt.
Lucas’s descent from exuberant and respected tutor to the morally oppressed and socially ostracised martyr is devastating to watch, stretching audience empathy to excoriating levels – there’s a scene in a supermarket that will have you gripping your fists in fury, and a Christmas mass sequence with the emotional force of Festen‘s final hour. But Vinterberg is hardly painting a black-and-white portrait. He wisely eschews finger-pointing scenario, which otherwise could attract some backlash, and rather exposes the inherently dangerous prejudice rooted in all of us. He’s created a sobering, pulverising social indictment of mass hysteria and suspension of rationality in the name of victimisation.
Part-social indictment, part-cautionary tale – The Hunt is a searing, finely judged portrayal of one man’s staunch battle against collective condemnation, directed with supreme skill by Vinterberg and performed with impressive strength by Mikkelsen – a career-best performance that will leave emotional bruises.