(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkoop, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Ole Dupont, Rikke Bergmann, Allan Wilbor Christensen, Josefine Grabol, Daniel Engstrup, Katrine Brygmann, Hana Shuan, Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, Nicolai Dahl Hamilton. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Western culture has this tendency to idealize children. In our eyes they are truthful little angels, incapable of lying. Well, any parent will tell you that they do lie, through their teeth at times. Sometimes, well-meaning adults can push children into saying what they think those adults want to hear. We are defenseless against the word of a child.
Lucas (Mikkelsen) is working as a kindergarten assistant in a small town in Denmark (the school he previously taught at has been shut down). Divorced and regularly denied visitation rights with his son, he is nonetheless well-liked and well-regarded in his community in which he has deep long-standing ties. His best friend, Theo (Larsen) has been known to drink himself insensible in Lucas’ company, always relying on Lucas to get him home to his wryly understanding wife Agnes (Hassing).
Theo’s daughter Klara (Wedderkoop), an angelic blonde little girl, adores Lucas…maybe too much. One afternoon when Lucas is rough housing with some of the boys, Klara rushes in and plants a rather adult kiss on his open mouth. Taken aback, Lucas admonishes her never to do that, and promptly forgets about the incident.
Klara doesn’t however. Humiliated, she sulks. Principal Grethe (Wold) finds her and quickly realizes that something’s wrong but she misinterprets and assumes that the reason she’s upset with Lucas is because he touched her inappropriately. She calls in a child services advocate (Dupont) who questions Klara. Klara, eager to be on the playground with her friends and tired of the incessant questioning, finally agrees that is what happened to her.
Lucas finds himself in the middle of a storm that he didn’t see coming. His denials are met with anger – Klara is a child not known for lying, why would she lie about this? He is quickly ostracized by the community, by people he knows well who suddenly see him as a child molester and a pervert. Theo is torn – he can’t believe that Lucas would do such a thing but Agnes has no such qualms. Of course he did – her angel said so and when Klara, seeing the rift developing between her parents and Lucas exclaims that he never did anything wrong, Agnes is sure that she is blocking out an unpleasant memory and tells her daughter so firmly that Klara believes her. And now other kids are coming forward, claiming Lucas took them into his basement and fondled them.
Even Lucas’ girlfriend Nadja (Rapaport) has some doubts about his innocence which causes the enraged Lucas to dump her. Worse still, his visitation rights to his son Marcus (Fogelstrom) are suspended. Rocks are thrown through his window. Klara however doesn’t see the enormity of what’s happened – she shows up at Lucas’ door to walk his dog, something he would normally allow her to do but he gently shoos her back home.
Lucas is shown the uglier side of those he has known all his life as despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing other than the word of Klara (the other stories are discredited when it is discovered by the police that Lucas’ house has no basement). As Christmas comes, Lucas is completely alone, ostracized and subject to being assaulted when he shows his face in a local grocery store.
Vinterberg, known as one of the founders of the Dogme95 movement of minimalist filmmaking with his masterpiece (to this point) Feste has crafted a movie that surpasses even that fine film. I can’t remember a movie in which I felt so emotionally drained after having sat through – some might consider the act of watching it a bit of an ordeal.
But it’s a good kind of ordeal, the kind that reminds us how ephemeral those ties that bind can be and how quickly our whole life can be turned inside out. Part of what draws us into this story is Mikkelsen’s outstanding performance. If this were a studio film (and I defy you to find a Hollywood studio with the guts to release a movie this harrowing) he’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January. Because this is being distributed by Magnolia – a fine distributor of indie and foreign films, mind you – chances are it won’t get the notice and the push needed to get him the votes needed to get him on the ballot. Rest assured however that Mikkelsen’s work is as good as anything you’ll see on the final ballot. It’s searing; Lucas is basically a quiet, good man trying to pull his life back together after a rough patch who is suddenly thrust into a situation that makes everything he went through previously look like a walk in the park. When things go South, Lucas reacts at first with incredulity then with denial and then with rage before finally going into a kind of shock.
The photography is simply exquisite as the bucolic Danish town, covered in snow or shining in the late summer/early autumn sun looks idyllic on the surface but like often happens, the rot is just below the surface. There is a scene near the end of the movie where Lucas stumbles into a Christmas Eve service where he is clearly not wanted. His face bruised and bloodied from a beating earlier that day, he sits in a pew, receiving disapproving glares from those around him. Nearby sits Theo and his family and Theo and he lock eyes several times. Theo gradually realizes that his friend is innocent – because he knows his friend and he sees the truth in his eyes. It’s a powerful scene and one that resonated with me long after the movie ended. I would recommend seeing the movie just for that scene alone.
Fortunately, there’s a lot more going for it than just that scene. Frankly, this is a movie that is as good as anything you’ll see this year. If there’s one flaw, it’s that the intensity might be too much for some. Still, if you are not emotionally fragile, this is the kind of movie that will lift you by the scruff of the neck and force you to see something of yourself whether you want to face it or not. To me, that’s a movie that’s worth its weight in gold.
REASONS TO GO: Emotionally wrenching. Amazing performance by Mikkelsen who should get Oscar consideration for it (but won’t).
REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the themes.
FAMILY VALUES: Very, very, very adult themes. Some violence, some bad language and some sexuality. Definitely not for kids of all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his role here
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100; it’s still early yet but the critics appear to be embracing this film.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scarlet Letter
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring Part 2