Not in Front of the Children

Events, dear boy, events have made the director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt pertinent in a way he simply couldn’t have foreseen when he was shooting in rural, deer-hunting, small-town Denmark. A pretty straightforward story about a teacher wrongly accused of child abuse, it arrives in Britain with the Jimmy Savile scandal in full swing, with other showbusiness figures (and even a bishop) being arrested and questioned on suspicion of similar behaviour. The rumour mill is in full spin, and the hysteria over who did what to whom and when has reached McCarthyite levels. In this febrile, borderline unhinged atmosphere, and with its echoes of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, The Hunt feels almost subversive.

Mads Mikkelsen, the spikey-featured, dour actor perhaps best known to us as the bloody-eyed villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, plays Lucas, whose already somewhat beleaguered existence (his marriage is over and he has lost his job) is utterly crushed when the little daughter of one of his pals suggests to her mother that he has exposed himself to her. From this point on there is no hope for Lucas: he is an utter outcast, shunned, reviled, physically assaulted, unable even to buy food in hostile shops. He seems to take it all in a bemused, oddly passive fashion, although this might have more to do with Mikkelsen’s sombre, less-is-more approach to acting which, in its solemn inexpressiveness, strikes the only unrealistic note in this otherwise determinedly gritty drama. Indeed, nobody I can recall so much as breaks into a smile throughout, and the prevailing sense of social purpose reminds one of an old BBC Play for Today. This is not then a feelgood movie for the pre-festive season.

But it retains our attention, and more importantly, questions some of the assumptions which, when it comes to the last taboo remaining to us, are now widespread and regarded as largely unchallengeable. One of these is that the innocence of children makes their word gospel. Only an increasingly sentimentalised, infantilised society can believe this; it was quite accepted, in more formally religious times, that a child could lie, manipulate and be wantonly cruel, that they could indeed be wicked. Here, little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) is reacting to what she sees as a rebuff to her affections from Lucas. How much she understands the consequences of her actions is unclear, but to give her the benefit of the doubt she is, as the law would put it, at least reckless as to the consequences. That, I’m afraid, didn’t make me feel any less like giving her a good thwacking.

But the point is that her actions and motives are never called into question. She is helped along here by her mother suggesting that her haziness on the details is obviously down to her desire to erase the memory, and that she’s therefore acting quite naturally: the unimaginative cliché of therapy further seals Lucas’s fate. Furthermore, should Klara not be told how her little lie could destroy another’s life just as effectively as hers in turn could have been if she had been abused? The adults’ readiness to believe her springs from their desire to believe her; their desire to punish is far greater and more genuine than their shock or disgust. Things eventually right themselves, in a way, but the film ends on a gloomy and pessimistic note, suggesting that for the most determined, smoke without fire is more than enough.

You could say that another form of childabuse has been meted out to young Estella in Great Expectations. She has, after all, been systematically poisoned by Miss Havisham’s insane bitterness, her heart replaced by “ice”, her whole raison d’être to exact revenge on men for her guardian’s humiliation at the altar. Miss Havisham remains the novel’s most compelling character and in this latest big-screen adaptation she and Helena Bonham Carter fit hand in glove. Like Gillian Anderson in the recent BBC series, she is probably a little too young, but the off-kilter mannerisms, the Tim Burton pedigree and the brittle, bone-china beauty combine to make her spooky and vulnerable. I remember as a kid seeing David Lean’s much-praised version and being fascinated by the idea of what the famous fire did to her; here, we get the burnt after-effects. It’s a horrifying little moment but moving too.

As with the TV series, Pip is played by a ridiculously handsome yet rather vacant young actor, Jeremy Irvine from War Horse. He has a refinement of features and a poise which, as with Oliver Twist, somehow mark him out as being something other than the orphaned assistant to a humble blacksmith—nature trumping nurture in the eyes of film-makers if not of Dickens himself. But it doesn’t really matter that he’s a blank sheet, given the story’s themes of class mutation, social aspiration and the manipulation of personal fate. He and Estella—played here by the luscious (if improbably named) Holliday Grainger—are like beautiful and benign versions of Frankenstein and his bride, the creation of others, not what they at first seem.

A huge amount happens in Great Expectations, and director Mike Newell has done his best to cram as much of it into two hours as possible. The chaos of 19th-century London is beautifully if fleetingly realised, and unlike so many literary adaptations there is real blood running through the veins of the story. Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch adds further to his growing reputation as Britain’s leading screen character actor, and Robbie Coltrane makes a benevolent Jaggers, the lawyer. Only in some of the smaller roles is there the kind of cartoonishness which can be such a temptation in Dickens: the heart sinks when the ubiquitous David Walliams slopes on as Uncle Pumblechook, and Sally Hawkins as Mrs Joe is plain embarrassing. But these are small faults: this is a hugely entertaining, thoughtful film. 

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