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Review: In Oscar Nominated ‘The Hunt,’ Mikkelsen Plays a Man Wrongly Accused of Society’s Worst Crime

Review: In Oscar Nominated 'The Hunt,' Mikkelsen Plays a Man Wrongly Accused of Society's Worst Crime

Certain charges can never be lived down, but will return to
haunt you again and again. This is a central theme of Danish director Thomas
Vinterberg’s brilliantly disturbing “The Hunt,” which has been nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar. It centers on Mads Mikkelsen
as a man wrongly accused of child molestation. The subject matter also haunts
Vinterberg’s body of work, which came to international prominence with 1998’s
“The Celebration,” a portrait of a family reunion gone to hell when memories of pedophilia rise to the surface.

Lucas (Mikkelsen) is a fortysomething in the wake of an
acrimonious divorce and the loss of his job as a school teacher. To make ends
meet, he works at a local kindergarten, a temporary job he obviously enjoys. He
has a natural way with young children, and a saintly patience for
five-year-olds using him as a jungle gym, calling on him to stand by as they
take their sweet time in the bathroom, and other such demands. He forms a
particular friendship with Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of the kindergarten’s
students and the cherubic daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen).

Perhaps because Klara is neglected at home when her parents
fight, or perhaps because little kids develop proto-sexual fixations on older
humans they idolize, she has an unruly if innocent crush on Lucas. This
little girl’s crush accidentally spirals into something catastrophic.

It’s easy enough for adults to misspeak. Even more so for
children, who are confused by their feelings, restricted by a language they
haven’t yet mastered, and acutely concerned with telling adults what they think
they want to hear. Klara, in not so many words, accuses Lucas of pedophilia. Making
this dire — and false — accusation all the more damaging is the unlikelihood
of a child making up such a story.

What happens next is a nightmare of mishandled events,
expertly staged and paced by Vinterberg and co-screenwriter Tobias Lindholm
(who directed the 2012 Danish film, “A Hijacking”). I can’t remember the
last time I was in a screening where there was such palpable, and audible,
anger in the audience — not at the film, but at the sequence of damning screw-ups placed so believably into the narrative. That the
kindergarten’s well-meaning principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), goes to her
unqualified friend, and then the school’s parents and staff, before approaching the police to further
look into the sensitive matter, is just one example from the film that sent a
wave of horrified noises through the theater. That horror is effective

As the man blindsided by such a pernicious accusation, Lucas
must make a journey from passivity to action in order to save his life. This
transition is handled brilliantly by Mikkelsen, who won the Best Actor award
for his performance at last year’s Cannes. A tall, well-built Dane with almost
otherworldly fine bone structure, Mikkelsen is a physical contradiction. He’s
strong and conventionally masculine (as seen particularly in Nicolas Winding
Refn’s brutal, beautiful Viking tale “Valhalla Rising”) but also has a delicacy
to him.

These dual qualities were no doubt honed during his years of
professional dance training. They translate to his performance in “The Hunt,”
where he at once plays a loner crippled by his past, but also the Lone Wolf
forced to protect himself from the townsmen’s pack — even if that means headbutting
his angelic nosebridge and cheek bones into a grocer who won’t let a perceived
pervert shop at the local food mart.

While this transition is central to “The Hunt,” it also
works in tandem with another shift in the film. As Lucas becomes isolated from
his friends, particularly the men with whom he gathers annually for woodland
deer hunting, his makeshift family unit becomes more solid. One friend, Bruun
(Lars Ranthe), resiliently defends him. Lucas’ teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom),
who has been living with his mother since the divorce, comes back into his life
with a loyal passion. One of the surprisingly moving detours in the film
follows Marcus on his own personal quest to right the shattering wrongs that
have been piled upon his father.

The elephant in the room is that such wrongs — false
accusations of pedophilia — have an indelible effect. Once out there, they’re not going away. “The
Hunt” doesn’t shy away from this bleak truth, but rather presents a plausible,
devastating reality. After the fallout, Lucas has his few true friends. Everyone
else is just a hunter, with rifle aimed, in the woods.

Our TOH! video interview with Mads Mikkelsen is here.

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