★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
When we’re kids, we’re lucky if we have people in our lives who encourage and support our imaginations. They play games with us and share stories, and along the way we learn these skills from them. But the power of what a fully developed imagination can be, and what it can do, comes later.
Sometimes too late.
In The Hunt, a small town in Denmark is torn asunder by the imagination of a little girl, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who hasn’t learned the weight of her words yet.
Klara’s imagination is fostered by a small cluster of teachers, like the handsome Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who work at the small nursery school she attends. Lucas is a family friend sympathetic to the dreamy problems she faces, like not being able to step over lines (think of the children’s game “hot lava”:
Don’t step on the lava!) and constantly losing her way home. He often goes out of his way to help her find her way back or walk her to school. Eventually, Klara develops a crush on him.
That crush goes too far, though, when she gives Lucas an innocent kiss on the lips during playtime and he reprimands her for it. It’s a gentle reprimand, but she is hurt and upset over the incident. Guided by an overprotective administrator, Klara eventually accuses Lucas of showing her his privates. The incident unleashes a maelstrom of outrage and panic in the town.
As the harsh Danish winter sets in around Lucas, so do the harsh realities of the accusation made against him. People turn from him and try to harm him; his ex-wife tries to stop him from seeing their son; stores refuse to serve him; and other children, coached with details from parents eager to see Lucas punished, begin to accuse him too.
At the beginning of the movie, it’s hard to imagine such a young guy as a nursery school teacher, but Lucas’ ease and natural ability to level with the children without infantilizing them makes it feel less odd. He’s good with kids, maybe better than anyone else at the school, but there is a slight nag that it’s a narrative setup the whole time. It’s the one flaw in an otherwise strong, if a little familiar, story.
The film would be nothing without its actors, though. There is not a single poor performance to be found, from Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen (who plays Klara’s father) all the way down to the day players – like the bulky Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, who plays a butcher who goes to brutish lengths to refuse Lucas’ business. But it’s the young, quixotic Wedderkopp who leaves everyone in her shadow. When the film is with her, it makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall of her playroom – as if she conjured the set walls, characters and film edits straight from her imagination and asked everyone to play along.