Friday, 7 December 2012

gft programme note: the hunt

Thehunt-web_thumb


Please note that this article contains spoilers.

With accusations of child molestation at its core, The Hunt is a kind of companion piece to director Thomas Vinterberg’s break-through feature Festen (1998). But where Festen’s dramatic beat came from the exposure of a hidden truth (specifically a dark family history of sexual abuse), The Hunt presents the effects of a public falsehood, dramatising the way rumour insidiously percolates throughout a community, smearing reputations and destroying lives. A small lie begets huge consequences for wrongly accused nursery assistant Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), branded a paedophile due to a series of knee-jerk assumptions and errors in judgement. His descent from community pillar to pariah makes clear the suffering that a wayward canard can inflict, its target tainted by association regardless of guilt.

Like the deer caught in the crosshairs in the first of the film’s hunting scenes, Lucas is oblivious to and powerless against the dangers headed his way. To assert his innocence gives away nothing – unlike, for example, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008), in which a priest is accused of molesting a young member of his parish and his guilt left ambiguous, Vinterberg and cowriter Tobias Lindholm make plain from the outset that Lucas is wronged against, not wronging; a victim of circumstance to be pitied, rather than a perpetrator to be punished. The film’s opening seconds teach a potted lesson in this regard: the screen is initially kept dark, and we hear unfamiliar sounds followed by men shouting. For a moment the effect is mildly threatening, until matched to its image: a hunting party merrily daring each other to leap in a freezing lake. This manipulation of tone seems to carry a warning: don’t jump to conclusions.

But while the taut script does not permit doubts in the audience, it does manage to believably delineate how and why such doubts form in the minds of Lucas’s neighbours, colleagues and even his closest friends. When the sad and lonely Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) tells her na├»ve lie to head teacher Gerthe (Susse Wold), the latter is visibly (and understandably) unsettled. While Gerthe initially expresses open-mindedness, objectively attempting to rationalise the child’s claims, it is soon apparent that, once an idea of such unpleasantness has formed, it becomes difficult to shake. As a result, once-unquestioned behaviour is re-contextualised as sinister, with Lucas’s friendliness and affection for the children scoured for ulterior motives. A repeated game, in which the children ambush Lucas as he arrives at work, demonstrates this parallax shift: on the first occasion, the children blithely swarm around Lucas, squealing with excitement as they playfully attack; on the second, Lucas pre-empts their impish trap by sneaking over a fence and reversing the roles, his harmless roughhousing watched over by a newly suspicious Gerthe. The headteacher’s subsequent actions are highly injudicious, aggravating a flippant accusation and generating an assumption of guilt that spreads throughout the town. But while some reviewers (even those positive about the film’s other qualities) have taken this as evidence of implausibility or “crude” plotting,[1] Vinterberg at least gives a sense of how emotions can override logic in the (apparent) presence of such abhorrent misdeeds. Mistakes are made, but without exception, characters act with the personal conviction that they are doing the right thing, with the best interests of the children at heart.

A scene in which an unspecified specialist interviews Klara to ascertain whether there is validity to her allegation underscores just how delicate ‘truth’ can be. His leading questions layer Klara’s vague fib with imaginary and prejudicial detail, moving from open questions (“Tell me what Lucas did”), to closed (“Did he show you his willy here in the nursery?”), speculating both act and location and simply asking Klara to confirm. Throughout the scene, children can be heard playing outside; as Klara distractedly glances over her shoulder, she is told that if she answers the question she’ll be allowed to join them, coaxing her to ratify the lie. When Grethe subsequently meets with Klara’s mother, her language is unequivocal. “Something has occurred…” Grethe firmly states, tailing off with a haunted “the things she said…” But, as the audience has just witnessed, Klara has ‘said’ very little. This process of external reinforcement is repeated later: having been advised that Klara will likely recant her accusation out of embarrassment, a genuine attempt to come clean is dismissed, her mother stressing “listen Klara, it did happen”.

Misinterpretations are rife. When other parents are warned that their children may also have been abused, they are told to look for symptoms including nightmares and bedwetting – genuine indicators of abuse in some circumstances, but also broad behavioural traits shared by many children of pre-school age. More accusations inevitably follow, the rising hysteria echoing Arthur Miller’s witch-hunt parable The Crucible. But though rejected affections play a part, Klara is no Abigail Williams-figure exacting deliberate revenge, but rather a confused child acting without malice. What The Hunt does share with Miller’s play, however, is a claustrophobic, nightmarish helplessness – a their-word-against-yours indictment near-impossible to defend against.

In the wake of last month’s Newnight scandal – in which Tory peer Lord McAlpine was erroneously identified as a paedophile following a flawed investigation by the BBC – The Hunt could scarcely be more topical to UK audiences. When the blunder became clear, journalist George Monbiot (one of several to name McAlpine on Twitter) was quick to apologise, in words that resonate with the events depicted in Vinterberg’s film. “I helped to stoke an atmosphere of febrile innuendo around an innocent man, and I am desperately sorry for the harm I have done him” Monbiot wrote. “I allowed myself to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage. As a result, far from addressing an awful injustice, I contributed to one.”[2] As well as dramatising the potential consequences of such unbridled moral outrage, The Hunt sympathetically attempts to unpick some of its causes.

Christopher Buckle
Journalist and researcher
December 2012



[1] Geoffrey Macnab (2012) ‘The Hunt Review’, Sight and Sound, accessed 02/12/12 at http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-hunt
[2] George Manbiot (2012), ‘Lord McAlpine – An Abject Apology’, accessed 03/12/12 at http://www.monbiot.com/2012/11/10/lord-mcalpine-an-abject-apology/

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