Feeding frenzy in the barnyard

The first if not worst casualty of political correctness is language. Is there – in English at least – a more ridiculous word than “inappropriate”? It is spoken by the pious of actions likely (they think) to abuse or corrupt; it is their deprived euphemism for the depraved. The incongruity between that first responders’ nicety and the avenging frenzy it often camouflages is at the heart of Thomas Vinterberg’s clever, imaginative, three-quarters-powerful The Hunt. As in his best-known film Festen, the Danish film-maker puts an alleged outrageous action on the plot table and watches as the characters’ initial polite and proper cluckings change to their visceral reality, a vindictive feeding frenzy. The avengers move in on their grub. It is barnyard morality in human form and punctiliously observed sequence.

In Festen a real outrage was revealed: a father’s incest with his children. In The Hunt teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is wrongly suspected of child abuse. He never molested the five-year-old girl, a hunting friend’s daughter, who irrationally accuses him. “I hate Lucas,” she blurts one day, “he’s stupid and ugly and he has a willy.” (The true triggering event is the flashing of a phallic photographic image by a brother’s pal.)

Bombshell! Suspected of inappropriateness, Lucas is scouted and surveilled by the scandal-seeking small-towners. If you scout for signs of pederasty, they will come; anything will do, however misconstrued. Soon Lucas is a virtual social leper. The last act of his downfall starts with shameless warpings of truth – the leading questions of a child psychiatrist catechising little Klara about the guilty “willy” (“Did anything white come out of it?”) – and graduates to job dismissal, a beating-up, even ...

No, we won’t spoil the last shot or shots. Vinterberg himself spoils some of the film’s climactic artillery. He has a poor actor in a key role, making actorish faces while shooting histrionic blanks. And we keep asking, or I did: “Surely Lucas could do a little more to counter these charges?” He is not an idiot; he can argue a case. (And he is excellently played by Mikkelsen.) But that does not suit the Ibsenite mission Vinterberg is set on. A social tragic drama tasked with condemning myopic illiberalism needs a hero who will go under willingly, after a few token, demonstrative writhings which say: “I’m not waving, I’m drowning, and the water is rising over my brain.”

Watching Sightseers, I kept thinking of a variant form of the old schoolboy riddle. What is black and green and re(a)d all over? Answer: this film. It’s a black comedy-thriller from Kill List director Ben Wheatley; its “green” satirical target is the central characters, a caravanning couple played by performer-screenwriters Alice Lowe and Steve Oram who murder people polluting or despoiling the countryside. And the film has already been “read all over” by the thinking classes, seeing here a modern-day Ladykillers or Kind Hearts and Coronets, enriched with wry thoughts on tree-hugging environmentalism.

If only. If only it were up there with the Ealing arts. Or even, more lethal comparison, with Mike Leigh’s great Nuts in May (1976), in whose wake the film often seems slavishly to toil. Leigh’s nerdy-precious camping couple, including Alison Steadman in her prime, was hysterically funny. The caravanners of Sightseers are as funny only as their deeds or misdeeds, which are low-level-variable. A man discarding an ice-cream wrapper is bloodily run over. A complainer about dog turds has his skull smashed in. (Roles are often mysteriously reversed, the green getting snippy with the greener.) There are a few laughs; a few wise nods. But before the end fatigue arrives and doesn’t go away.

Our planet needs another version of Great Expectations as much as it needs an invasion by intergalactic luvvies putting on a Christmas panto. The two things may be interchangeable. Is that the real Ralph Fiennes, or an extraterrestrial parodist, gurning his phiz and churning his mockney accent as convict Magwitch? Is that Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, cobwebbed, eye-shadowed and old-wedding-dressed, or an interstellar spoof of the star already serving a Gothic life sentence on screen by being muse to Tim Burton?

Mike Four Weddings and a Funeral Newell directs the only way he could, as if he hasn’t noticed the direness of the project. David Lean did the Dickens novel proud in 1946. Why do it again? The Thames marshes look nice in colour, but looked nicer in black and white. Jean Simmons’s Estella had a perfect cruel twinkle; the new Estella, in grown-up form at least, is a soap commercial on legs. Playing the older Pip and his friend Herbert Pocket, Jeremy Irvine and Olly Alexander battle the shades of John Mills and Alec Guinness. Worst of all, scenarist David Nicholls has decided this will be the version that honours Dickens’s tortured tying-up of loose ends: by which we come to know in excessive detail that everyone is connected to everyone else, when the joy of a free screen version (Lean again) is that every character is a discreet integer, not a slave of coincidence-mad Victorian serialisation.

America’s National Register of Historic Monuments must now list Clint Eastwood. He deserves veneration and needs protection. Trouble with the Curve is full of the first (the reverential close-ups multiplying by the minute) while urgently soliciting the second. There stands Clint as schmaltz gathers momentum. He looks like Mount Rushmore in the rain. He clasps his dignity as the winds of pomposity blow the drizzles of sententious sentimentality straight at him.

A crusty, ageing baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves, Eastwood’s hero wants one more talent-nabbing season although macular degeneration is blurring his eyesight and daughter-with-a-grudge Amy Adams – successful in business but a secret unrequited baseball fan – traipses after him, a dog wanting to pick any number of bones.

For an awful film, it is annoyingly watchable. First-time director and longtime Eastwood producer Robert Lorenz is a pedestrian plonker of the camera. It sits there in shot after shot dumbly ogling the faces. First-time screenwriter Randy Brown ticks each box in the “Have you included every generation gap cliché?” questionnaire. Still, the ground is thick with stalwart supporting actors (John Goodman, Robert Patrick), Justin Timberlake is OK-plus as the male bimbo love interest, and Clint has never better used that wise twinkle, an old star’s Parthian blaze, which says: “The higher the crap around me, the higher I rise.”

When the “mail early for Christmas” announcements begin, mail yourself to a country not showing Rise of the Guardians. Here is another kitschy kiddy fantasy about Father Christmas, witless, gaudy and hyperkinetic. Digimated Santa, helped by other bedtime story heroes including Sandman, Jack Frost and Easter Bunny, battles to save the universe. The audience battles to care or stay awake; the Sandman will visit all parts of the theatre ...

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