Soon after meeting Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a popular, divorced teacher at a small-town Danish kindergarten, we are in an autumn forest with him. He sees a deer, he shoots it, and its lifeless eyes fill the screen as it hits the ground. It’s a pertinent metaphor, but I took an immediate dislike to him and, despite the plight that he would find himself in, I was unable to garner any empathy with the bloke. It is a mindset thing, I guess. And that is what director Thomas Vinterberg is coming to grips with – mindsets and their intractability.
An innocent occurrence on just another day at work results in disastrous consequences when little Klara (Annita Wedderkop) untruthfully tells the headmistress that Lucas has exposed himself to her. The scene is chilling, with Klara’s face dimly lit and the child displaying an uncanny mixture of the angelic and the malevolent. I didn’t like the kid at any point; in fact my blood ran cold every time she appeared (she reminded me of the dolls that were such a staple of old B&W haunted-house movies) and I wondered if that was the intention.
What Vinterberg highlights most brutally, though, is our seemingly bottomless capacity for believing the worst of others. Lucas’s fellow teachers do not think for a minute that their erstwhile friend might not be guilty of the offence with which he has been charged. Quite the opposite – their sanctimonious group-think leads them to encourage the rest of the children to ‘remember’ similar things happening to them. Lucas, suddenly a despised outcast, must come to terms with the Crucible-like mentality that surrounds him while sheltering his teenage son from the horrors of his persecution.
Outside, a bitterly cold northern winter descends, and the good burghers celebrate Yuletide with public bonhomie, but vindictiveness is in their hearts. Gripping, emotionally exhausting and uncomfortably honest in its depiction of how thin is our veneer of civility, it’s a terrific film with a brilliant performance from Mikkelsen – but Klara really spooked me.