Danish director Thomas Vinterberg enters the chase for the Palme d’Or with The Hunt (Jagten, 2012), a tense thriller about a primary school teacher unjustly accused of paedophilia. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a recent divorcee in the midst of a bitter custody dispute over his teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm), who despite this enjoys a close rapport with his students. Klara (Annika Wedderkop), the five-year-old daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), feels particularly close to her kindly tutor.
Feeling neglected by her bickering parents and hurt when Lucas tries to maintain his professional distance, Klara tells her head mistress that she hates her once-favourite teacher for something that he allegedly did to her. What follows is a quick escalation as conclusions are jumped to and the wrong people consulted in the matter. Rumour quickly spreads and any doubt about Lucas’ guilt evaporates even among his closest friends, including Theo. In the blink of an eye, the community becomes almost unanimous in its condemnation.
The Hunt is very clear about Lucas’ innocence from the off, but the power of fear contaminates even our own view of him. There are some clear and obvious mistakes in the ‘investigation’, and the fear and repulsion towards paedophilia creates such an infectious cloud of horror that the idea of giving someone the benefit of the doubt vanishes amidst the accusations and anger. Lucas is tenacious in standing up against his charge, insisting on his innocence even with the whole village and the authorities apparently set against him.
Meanwhile, Vinterberg is careful not to demonise Klara. She quickly admits that she was lying about the allegations, yet even this confession is immediately written off as a frightened child erasing a traumatic past memory. The headmistress declares that she will follow procedure to the letter, but it looks more like she’s just making it up as she goes along – her insistence that children don’t lie about such things palpably false.
Mikkelsen here adds to a growing CV of top class performances. With The Hunt, Vinterberg allows his fellow Dane the space to honestly portray the plight of a civilised man who tries to react to an uncivil and outrageous calumny with calm and reason – up until the point that things go too far. Despite the delicate subject matter, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm give the film plenty of humour (see 1998’s Festen for Vinterberg’s past form in this field), especially through the character of Brun (Lars Ranthe), Lucas’ close friend and his only stalwart supporter.
The Hunt‘s premise may not be anything particularly new and there are some cliches in the lone man against many narrative. However, the sheer strength of Mikkelsen’s performance, coupled with the wit and pace of Vinterberg/Lindholm’s script transform the film into the effective thriller it promises – a much-needed corrective to tabloid newspaper-fuelled hysteria. Vinterberg’s latest (and undoubted return to form) perhaps feels a tad too generic to be in the running for the prestigious Palme d’Or, but Mikkelsen could well be a contender for some acting honours come the end of the festival.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May, 2012. For more of our Cannes 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.