It is fitting that Thomas Vinterberg’s much-lauded The Hunt (15) has been released for home viewing during Holy Week. In 1998, his acclaimed ironically-titled Festen (Celebration) took a well-heeled happy family gathering and twisted it via an horrific revelation so the party turned dark and tragic. The heart of The Hunt is set at Christmastime but the false revelation by the infant Klara (a startlingly impressive Annika Weddenkopp) that sole male nursery teacher, Lucas (Cannes Best Actor Mads Mikkelsen) abused her forces him along his own Via Dolorosa.
It’s An Anti-Wonderful Life
Whereas Festen proved a pinned-out dissection of a Danish family revealing its dark heart, Vinterberg here eviscerates an entire small town. For all his blond boyish good looks, the director seems to have a pretty jaundiced view of his countryfolk.
Nursery head, Grethe is obliged to take young Klara’s words at face value – and so, a small-town witchhunt is set in motion. For, although essentially a Christmas film, the taut and chilly The Hunt turns out to be the complete antithesis of It’s A Wonderful Life.
While Vinterberg makes it clear to us that the niaively hands-on Lucas is as innocent as George Bailey, there is little rallying round, let alone prayer support in this isolated Danish community. (Indeed, at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is underscored the very rightness of the battered, isolated Lucas turning up but we also recognise the corresponding unChristian unforgiveness of the rest of the congregation.)
Closing in on their quarry
On the contrary, the macho, hard-drinking local deer-hunting fraternity seen at the autumnal top of the film turns on Lucas. There seems to be a strong demarcation between men and womenfolk in this town. There’s an aggressive streak among the men, and that Lucas’ ex-wife won’t even talk to him suggests his own dark past. Yet the ganging up of the female nursery teachers against their one-time colleague looks like a witches’ coven too.
Extreme violence is meted out not only on Lucas but his loved ones and it appears the flipside activity of a community unable to truly engage with their children. The kindness Lucas first showed by accompanying best friend’s daughter Klara to nursery was because her parents were too busy arguing that it was neither their turn.
It is striking too how no one other than victim Lucas is able to admit to themselves that young children can lie and be vindictive. And when Klara later admits she was being foolish after all, the adults take it that she is in denial. it feels like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Not quite an Easter film
A Christmas film can not be a Christmas film without either mention of the season or the sight of decorations. Yet films such as Frozen River and Young at Heart while focusing strongly on the December festival, happen to follow the pattern of Easter:characters overcome trials, and a ‘death’ of self takes them anew into the future. The Hunt stops short of that. What we witness in The Hunt is Lucas’ journey up to a bloodied “Good Friday”. He has seen the dark heart of the people he lives among, and there will be no respite from that knowledge.
The Hunt (Arrow Films)
Blue-ray £19.99/DVD £17.99/Also available on iTunes