Most actors would be far too intimidated to take on the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter after Anthony Hopkins made it his own and Oscar voters seconded that notion.
But Mads Mikkelsen is not just any actor, as he proved with NBC's "Hannibal" along with such movies as "A Royal Affair," "Casino Royale" and "After the Wedding."
In "The Hunt," for which he won best actor honors at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the Danish performer flawlessly plays a teacher who becomes the object of scorn, hatred and ostracism after a girl accuses him of indecent behavior.
3.5 stars = Very Good
Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Susse Wold.
R for sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language.
When the story opens, Lucas (Mr. Mikkelsen) is a divorced man with a tight circle of friends, a teenage son he regrettably sees only every other weekend, an ex-wife who communicates with him through contentious phone calls and a job teaching kindergarteners who adore him. None is more devoted than Klara (Annika Wedderkopp).
The girl, who is given to flights of fancy, is the daughter of Lucas' best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), and his wife. Klara has a habit of wandering away or being forgotten by her distracted parents and clearly has a crush on Lucas.
When Lucas kindly but firmly tries to keep the boundary clear between teacher and student, the girl is hurt. She tells Grethe (Susse Wold), the woman who runs the school, that she hates Lucas and repeats a sexually inappropriate comment her older brother and a pal said.
Grethe becomes convinced Lucas is a pedophile. "I don't think children lie. Not in that way," she insists, banishing Lucas and setting the stage for the hysteria to follow.
"The Hunt," directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg, tracks Lucas through a small community's fictional version of the McMartin preschool case.
The tortured trajectory is etched in Lucas' face, from his easy contentment at the beginning to his bewilderment when vague, unspecified charges are leveled and his literal pain when beefy fists fly.
This is not a witch hunt played out across TV screens or newspaper headlines; it's far more personal than that, with Lucas' accusers his neighbors and friends, the ones who drank and hunted with him. That makes the betrayal -- on both sides -- more stinging.
"The Hunt" was inspired by Mr. Vinterberg's encounter with a renowned Danish child psychologist who raised questions about children, fantasies, repressed memories and his theory that "thought is a virus."
Suspicions of child molestation cannot be ignored, but what if the children are unreliable witnesses? Have lives been ruined in the service of a lie or confusion or mass frenzy? No one suggests a lie detector test, which might be standard in the States along with the hiring of a defense attorney.
"The Hunt" has many meanings, from the literal hunting, which serves as a rite of passage and male bonding exercise, to the treatment of Lucas and search for the truth. It's harder to find than the deer, which pause in the forest and become easy targets of deadly rifle fire.
Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. In Danish with English subtitles.moviereviews