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False accusation ruins a decent man in the sad tale ‘The Hunt.”

Mads Mikkelsen 'The Hunt.'

Mads Mikkelsen in "The Hunt."

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‘THE HUNT’ ★★★1⁄2

Lucas Mads Mikkelsen

Theo Thomas Bo Larsen

Klara Annika Wedderkopp

Marcus Lasse Fogelstrom

Grethe Susse Wold

Magnolia Pictures presents a film directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm. In Danish, with English subtitles. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: September 3, 2013 6:19AM

In director Thomas Vinterberg’s engrossing drama “The Hunt,” Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen delivers a stunning performance as a 40-year-old kindergarten teacher whose life is upended after the young daughter of his best friend falsely accuses him of sexual impropriety.

Mikkelsen, who played James Bond’s nemesis in the remake of “Casino Royale” and holds the title role on the NBC series “Hannibal,” won a best actor award at Cannes in 2012 for this performance, which displays another nuanced side of his considerable acting skills.

Vinterberg has created a modern horror story about a man’s descent into a Kafkaesque nightmare. The setting is a Danish country village where Lucas and his friends hunt and carouse. Yet he is a mild-mannered man whose job at the school suits him. In his personal life, he is levelheaded and calm as he battles his ex-wife for custody of his teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), who wants to come and live with his father.

The children at the school adore Lucas, but it is precocious 7-year-old Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) who has a crush on him and becomes the center of the trouble to come. The daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), she is driven by anger and confusion when he discourages her devotion; she makes him a heart in art class, but he gently tells her to give it to her parents instead. Klara, who is influenced by family troubles and a pornographic photo she accidentally glimpsed on her teenage brother’s iPad, tells the school principal (Susse Wold) her imagined story of abuse.

The townspeople immediately form a shield around the children as the accusations multiply, and the witch hunt gains momentum. Incompetent adults feed the answers they want to the children, and the hysteria grows as more students claim they too have been abused. What results is a vivid journey into the dark realms of the human psyche.

Innocent until proven guilty does not hold sway here. Lucas’ natural reticence and lack of guile leave him unprepared for what follows. He loses his job. His girlfriend begins to have doubts. The grocer doesn’t want his business. And when Marcus defends his father, he is beaten up.

Vinterberg keeps a close hand on the film’s action, building a steady tension as the story unfolds. Dread and anger overtake Lucas as he begins to understand the people he has known all his life have turned against him. Yet he holds on to the thought that his friends will come to their senses and see that he is innocent. When he does lash out, it is in a wrenching scene in church on Christmas Eve as he accuses the townspeople of hypocrisy.

There is no mystery involved in this story; we know Lucas is innocent from the beginning. And as the children’s claims begin to fall apart, a glimmer of hope emerges for a return to normalcy.

But the seeds of doubt have been sown and likely will never be completely uprooted. A final scene telegraphs this with near deadly precision. Lucas may think his life is back to normal, but now it revolves around a new normal: An unfounded accusation from the mind of a confused child will cast a shadow on him for the rest of his life. In the final seconds of the film, this realization is reflected on Lucas’ face, and it is heartbreaking.

Mary Houlihan is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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