The Hunt examines the chilling consequences of a child’s lie

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In Thomas Vinterburg’s agonising film The Hunt, a child’s lie, one intended without malice, is blown out of all proportion by the adults who interpret it.

A remarkably perceptive study of how fibs compound more fibs, resulting in a horrendous snowball effect, it’s a deeply difficult film to watch. Yet such is the power of the filmmaking and the acting that one cannot tear their eyes from the screen. It’s a return to familiar ground for the director, whose landmark film Festen (1998) also dealt with the topic of sexual abuse.

It is in short brilliant and further cements Mads Mikkelsen’s formidable reputation on the international stage following his terrific performance in A Royal Affair. In The Hunt, he gives another tremendous turn as kindly kindergarten teacher Lucas. Living in a quiet, rural Danish community, Lucas is much loved by his pupils, the local community in which he lives and his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), whom he is seeking to gain custody of following a difficult divorce.

Right from the start, Vinterburg creates a tantalising sense of a hermetic, rural environment, the sort of community in which a simple lie can have catastrophic consequences. The film opens with shots of thick woodland, followed by a scene in which a group of men plunge into an icy lake. It’s a world of intimacy and tradition that is about to be imploded. Immediately we are on tenterhooks: we know the pastoral calm will not last.

The mood is beautifully enhanced by the autumnal/wintry palate of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who uses warm rustic colours in the first half of the film to suggest a central character whose life is on the cusp of change. Lucas is looking ahead to fresh pastures and he hopes that the tatters of his old life will settle, just as the autumnal leaves are settling around the cavernous home in which he lives, alone.

But Lucas’ happy world comes crashing down around him when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), makes an accusation of sexual abuse against him. The tension is built incrementally, starting when Klara is exposed to pornography on her older brother’s iPad and escalating when she misinterprets Lucas’ rejection of a gift she has made for him.

It’s established early on that Lucas is innocent of the charge. Where Vinterburg instead focuses his energy is in observing how the minutiae of Clara’s naivety leads to a fatal understanding. Vinterburg never divides characters into heroes or villains but instead exposes how the capacity for hysteria exists in all of us. In fact, what makes his film so terrifying is how it observes the ramifications of apparently simple gestures. Lucas is eventually ostracized from the community, his friends turn against him and at one point he’s arrested in front of his son.

Yet the film, for all its chilly austerity, never loses its grip on human understanding. Klara’s accusation is not intended to destroy Lucas’ life because she doesn’t truly comprehend what she’s saying. But when the busybody headteacher Grethe (Susse Wold) is informed, she reformulates the implications of the story and the damage is done. When Klara attempts to say that Lucas has done nothing wrong, she’s told that she’s misremembering events. A lie is one thing; a misread lie is something else entirely.

What’s really disturbing is how Vinterburg exposes the fickle nature of human loyalty and friendship. As the locals turn on Lucas in increasingly violent fashion, he’s exposed to the prejudice and malice that’s latent in people he thought he knew. In Vinterburg’s film, social interaction is predicated on a metaphorical quicksand and into this does Lucas sink, culminating in a gut-wrenching appearance at the Christmas carol service.

Mikkelsen makes the experience singularly compelling, never lapsing into melodramatics but always conveying Lucas’ sense of dignity in the face of a dreadful situation. The actor’s haunted features say it all: Lucas is a man who will have to live with the lingering stink of the whole incident for the rest of his life. A lie will eventually blow over; but resentment lingers. The calm, matter-of-fact delivery with which the film deals with these admittedly glib truths lends it a haunting power.