It’s that time of year. A time when our thoughts turn inexorably to the real reason we celebrate Christmas, which is: coming up with our Top Tens. I’ve already been asked by Radio Times to supply my Top Ten Films of 2012, so that a collective best-of can be collated for the website. But I felt ill-equipped to do so. Not because I haven’t seen most of the key films of the year. I have. But because as of Friday, when I was forced to compile my list, there were at least three new films on release that I hadn’t seen but predicted would make the cut: Amour, Sightseers and The Hunt.
Well, I got my ass in gear and saw The Hunt on Saturday. Guess what? It’s one of my Top Ten Films of 2012. (Bad luck, Skyfall, which may just get nudged out of my original ten.) I know what you’re thinking. A Danish film. If I like Denmark so much why don’t I got and live there? Well, I would, but maybe not to the kind of close-knit, almost primeval rural Danish hamlet Thomas Vinterberg depicts in this evocative but subtly terrifying drama. Its setting is far away from the sleek, sophisticated world of coalition politics and grand office buildings seen in Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing. We’re talking about a place where everybody knows each other. And where one man’s life can be turned upside down.
Vinterberg, one of the original Dogme 95 founders, is still best known for 1998’s Festen, in which a family gathering in an august hotel is rent asunder by the revelation that a patriarch had abused two of his children. It’s a pretty devastating piece, yet shot handheld on DV under strict Dogme dogma, which gives it a fly-on-the-wall quality that’s become commonplace. (If you’ve seen it, you won’t have forgotten it. And if you remember the youngest son, played by Thomas Bo Larsen, he’s in The Hunt.) I haven’t seen any of Vinterberg’s subsequent works, a couple of which have been in English and I think most of which have been flops. Either way, The Hunt seems to have put him back at the top table, for good reason.
Mads Mikkelsen, the Easter Island statue-faced leading man who plays a divorced primary school teacher who’s clearly brilliant with kids but who gets wrongly accused of inappropriate behaviour with one of them, has already been in one of my favourite films of 2012, the Dansk costume drama A Royal Affair. He’s also done quite a bit of super-mainstream Hollywood crossover in the likes of King Arthur, Clash of the Titans and Casino Royale. But this is being talked about his best performance so far, and it won him props at Cannes. (His brother, Lars, was Troels Hartmann in The Killing.)
The subject of child abuse, and the suspicion of child abuse, is becoming a popular one for “issue”-based fiction. We’ve seen convicted paedophiles played by courageous, well-known actors including Matthew Macfadyen (C4’s Secret Life), Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children), but Lucas in The Hunt is different: he’s innocent. This is not a spoiler, as the accusation is made early on, and we, the audience, are left in no doubt that he didn’t do it. This is The Hunt‘s underlying masterstroke. It’s not about child abuse, but it is about the moral panic that surrounds it in this day and age. (If it was set in the 1970s, you might argue that there would be no drama, and no film.) I won’t delve too far into the plot, but Bo Larsen plays Lucas’s best friend, and the father of the child who makes the life-changing accusation, and his work in the film is equal to Mikkelesen’s.
I loved the way Vinterberg, who co-writes with Tobias Lindholm, plunges us into the rough, tough, ritualistic way of life in the unnamed town, with an annual dip in an icy-cold lake by this hermetically-sealed community’s menfolk, many of them hairy and big, like bears. It is as if these creatures are, like the wildlife they hunt with guns, of the forest that encircles their world. The men are seen roaring and drinking around a table after bagging a stag, like primitive men. They are no less likeable for it, but we are glimpsing a species closer to the earth than the fancy types who live in Copenhagen. They seem honest and hardworking and loyal. And yet, at the first whiff of wrongdoing, they turn nasty. And Lucas finds himself at the sharp end.
You’re reminded of Straw Dogs, even though Lucas is not some speccy intellectual cast among savages; he’s one of them. But his alleged crime casts him out of the circle of trust, and if they don’t actually take up flaming torches and run him out of town, you feel it could happen at any moment. The Hunt is not a horror film, or a thriller, in the conventional sense of either, but it is horrific, and thrilling. It’s also darkly amusing in places. And surprisingly moving.
Because of the times we are living in right now, especially in this country after Savile, the very idea of a film about accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards children might seem inappropriate. It’s certainly problematic that it centres around an unreliable accusation made by a child. (The reasons for the accusation are complex, but very convincingly and subtly built up. The child is not portrayed as vindictive or bad, just confused and misunderstood – and is admirably played by Annika Wedderkopp. It’s the system that seems at fault in this world, not the people.)
Never mind my soft spot for Scandinavian drama (oh, and fans will recognise Bjarne Henriksen aka Theis Birk Larsen from The Killing as a social worker), The Hunt is quite an achievement: to take a prickly subject matter and press it into service not as an issue-of-the-week but as a motor for exposing the fragility of friendship where children are concerned. It takes a lot of courage to do this, and a lot of skill to set up a smalltown witch-hunt that never strays into melodrama. There’s a scene in a church that doesn’t play out like its equivalent in a Hollywood movie would. And a scene in a supermarket that avoids the same nest of clichés. Even the use of the deerhunt motif itself is surprising.
Right, now, if I can just fit in Sightseers and Amour, my Radio Times Top Ten can be further decimated.