By the time Christmas is mentioned in Thomas Vinterberg’s chilly, taut The Hunt, the damage has been done. ‘Are you excited about Christmas?’ Grethe, the nursery head puts to infant Klara (a startlingly impressive Annika Weddenkopp). And the little girl, moments before snubbed by the lone male teacher with whom she was besotted, spits out: ‘I hate Lucas!’ Within minutes she has concocted a devilish tale about the man, spiced up by the disturbing porn images her teen brother earlier forced her to see, and which Grethe must take seriously. Small-town witchhunt unknowingly set in motion, Klara asks ‘Is Santa coming this year?’
The Hunt is the complete antithesis of It’s A Wonderful Life. While Vinterberg makes it clear to us that the niaively hands-on Lucas (Cannes Best Actor Mads Mikkelsen) 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.)
On the contrary, the macho camaraderie and hard-drinking culture of the 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 but 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.
I have yet to see how a Christmas film can 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 depicting Christmas follow the pattern of Easter of characters overcoming trials, a ‘death’ of self to take them anew into the future. What we witness in The Hunt is Lucas’ Via Dolorosa, his bloodied Good Friday journey. But he has seen the dark heart of the people he lives among, and there will be no respite from that knowledge.
Animation The Rise of the Guardians is actually set in the run up to Easter, and it is really a Peter Panish Jack Frost’s (voiced by Chris Pine) and Aussie Easter Bunny’s (Hugh Jackman) story. Which is a bit of a swizz given that it was released this week and Santa Claus with his Naughty and Nice wrist tattoos features centre stage on the film posters. Sandman and Tooth Fairy are also in the same gang, brought together to protect children’s dreams and sense of wonder from the dastardly Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law who should play sinister roles more often) who wants to replace hope with darkness and fear.
For thinking adults, there are some huge conceptual holes. For one thing, if the good gang are supposed to have been protecting the children of the world and bringing wonder, hope and dreams since the Dark Ages when Mr Black last ruled, how do they account for the suffering of the children of Hiroshima, Chernobyl and those living under Nazi Germany?
Plus the action sequences are retina-burning in that ‘children’s blockbuster’ manner. But, as with Nativity and Nativity 2, the point is not to watch The Rise of the Guardians with your thinking cap strapped on too tightly. It is colourful, lightly amusing, reminiscent of Monsters Inc and with a heady mix of characters: the under 10s will love it.