I’m glad I finally got to see this at a public screening (thanks to Square Chapel, Halifax). The Commune is partly a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through the 1970s – though I was younger than the main characters, I can still recognise the world depicted here (meant to be 1975). Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg has his own memories of life in a commune as a small child but his writing partner Tobias Lindholm was not born until 1977. How then did they do in creative terms?
I’m not sure how Danish communes compare with their Anglo-American counterparts but the commune in this film strikes me as a little unusual since it is based in a large suburban house in the suburbs of a coastal town. The house has been left to a couple in their forties with a 14 year-old daughter. Erik, the architecture lecturer (Ulrich Thomsen) wants to sell the house, but his wife TV newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm) thinks their family life needs a change and she urges Erik to agree to invite friends to join them in a communal household. My sense of communes tend to be of smallholdings and rural communities or urban squats. This one seems rather bourgeois. Erik and Trine seem too ‘established’ to be in a commune – but they are joined by a younger couple with a child and some singles. The narrative then finally takes off when Erik, still confused by his role in the new set-up, falls for one of his students, 24 year-old Emma.
The narrative promises an exploration of communal life with some great scenes by the sea with everyone together, but then it becomes the story of a marriage and a family and the commune becomes simply the difficult context in which the marriage founders. Having said that, I think the representation of the commune is fair. Quite a few reviewers seem to have assumed that a commune must be about ‘free love’ and that everyone would be swapping partners. That doesn’t happen, but for me it was the other absence that was telling. Reviewers refer to this group of ‘leftists’, but actually there is very little discussion of politics as such and little sense of political activity. I tend to agree with something else that I read, that this script might have been better developed into a TV drama series (or, at the least, into a longer film). Perhaps then some of the stories about the other characters might have been developed further.
I did enjoy watching the film. Vinterberg and Lindholm are too experienced and professional to fail to make a film like this watchable and Thomsen and Dyrholm are very good. Trine Dyrholm in particular makes a viewing experience worthwhile. She always gives everything she’s got. It’s good to see the 1970s too. I liked the decade and its political struggles. I guess we smoked too much, but the clothes were comfortable.
In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to watch the new version of Thomas Hardy’s famous story just a few days after seeing the restoration of the 1967 film. I spent too much time spotting all the events ditched from the script in the new version that runs 119 instead of 169 minutes. That’s quite a chunk of screen time gone. I’ll try to be objective in comparing the two.
The new version is puzzling as a production (from BBC Films and the long-standing UK production company DNA films). I’m guessing that the funding wasn’t there to make something on the epic scale of the original. It was a brave move to hire Thomas Vinterberg whose English language films have so far not matched his Danish successes. I expected something punchy from the director of The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2013) with the same cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Although the latter conjures up some remarkable visual sequences, this doesn’t feel like a project on which Vinterberg was totally free or properly engaged. I think that Carey Mulligan, cast as Bathsheba Everdene, had a fair amount of clout in choosing Matthias Schoenaerts as her co-star (playing the shepherd Gabriel Oak) and she and Schoenaerts offer the best performances in my view. The other strength is the costume design which is truly wonderful. I wasn’t that keen on Ms Mulligan’s hats but her riding gear and several of her dresses are breathtaking, especially a blue one with white decorative motifs that glow in the evening light. As I predicted, Mulligan matches Julie Christie in terms of performance. They present quite different characters so a direct comparison is not useful. Mulligan is a couple of years older than Christie was in 1967. She presents Bathsheba as more virginal, but also more stylish – still ‘girlish’ but with the strength of an ‘independent woman’. The film is worth seeing for Carey Mulligan alone.
Unfortunately much of the rest of the film is less sure about itself. It begins badly with a strange title suggesting that we are “200 miles from London”. Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in Dorset is more like 130 miles. It’s not important, but who thought it was a good idea? As I’ve noted there are some stunning visual sequences, mainly of landscapes in mists, or in ‘magic hour’ lighting etc. – but there are some quite ‘flat’ scenes and at least one dreadful edit. The harrowing sequence depicting Fanny Robbins on the way to the workhouse (which includes this edit) is almost thrown away. I think the main problem is a poor script by David Nicholls who was probably asked to aim for the impossible in trying to condense an eventful novel to produce a two-hour film. Michael Sheen as Boldwood and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy both seem like miscastings to me. They are both fine actors but they don’t have the starpower of their counterparts in the 1967 film, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp and the characters seem a little diminshed as a result. Sturridge in particular is severely hampered by the script which doesn’t give him enough time to explore the character’s complexities. In 1967, for many female audiences in the UK, Stamp was the sexiest man alive, except, perhaps, for those who fancied Alan Bates (who played Gabriel Oak). What was particularly missing for Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy were key scenes with Fanny and the circus sequence for his return. Instead of being a cad, charming but a little dark, Sturridge’s Troy is reduced to being pretty but brutal.
I looked at a few reviews. Keith has already had a go at Thirza Wakefield in Sight and Sound for a different film and I was intrigued to read her review which on the whole is perceptive and interesting especially about Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as the ‘modern’ woman the script constructs, though she falls into the autuerist trap of referring to ‘Vinterberg’s camera’ (and its references to Victorian paintings), when surely it’s important that it’s the female perspective of Charlotte Brus Christensen. The ‘best’ review (i.e. the one that agrees with me!) is from Fionnuala Halligan in Screendaily – she’s very good on the production team.
In sum, this new adaptation is very good in parts and Carey Mulligan is excellent throughout. She makes a great romantic heroine, but the project lacks the scope of the novel and the scale of the 1967 adaptation. Nevertheless I hope we see more from Vinterberg and Christensen in a UK context. In the meantime, audiences not making the comparison with the 1967 version will enjoy this adaptation.
Official US trailer (good for showing off the camerawork and Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba):
It tells you something about contemporary film culture when Amour is a major UK release by Artificial Eye, furiously promoted and garlanded with awards and The Hunt, also a Cannes prizewinner in 2012, sneaks out on a much more limited release from a smaller distributor which seems to have done little to maximise its cinema box office. It’s not easy to find The Hunt, but you should look out for it as one of the films of the year. Its Cannes prize was for Mads Mikkelsen as Best Actor and he was certainly a deserving winner. With his other stellar performance in A Royal Affair earlier this year, he is perhaps the leading European actor at the moment. Yet The Hunt is not a one man show. Everything about this film is first class. It begins with the script by Tobias Lindholm (who also writes for Borgen) based on a story by the director Thomas Vinterberg and runs through the direction of a fine ensemble cast and a remarkable performance by Annika Wedderkop (as the young child at the centre of the narrative) to the cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and indeed all the other technical credits.
In some ways, The Hunt is related to Vinterberg’s first international feature, Festen – the first Dogme film in 1998. The Hunt isn’t a Dogme film, though some of the vitality of the hand-held camerawork is still evident. The Hunt is much more ‘composed’ and it uses landscape and mise en scène in more expressive ways. In thematic terms, however, it does resemble Festen in suggesting a dark undercurrent in Danish social life. Festen was about the machinations of a wealthy family whereas The Hunt is a melodrama about a small community. The Hunt also moves beyond the ‘realism’ of Festen to explore a community in the forest which somewhere beneath the surface suggests a link to a traditional, almost fairytale world. This is an absorbing and enthralling example of storytelling at its best.
Vinterberg has said in interviews that the title ‘The Hunt’ is ‘banal’ but it is actually very clever in its multiple references. The narrative more or less begins and ends with a hunt by the local men of a small community somewhere in a Danish forest. (Not sure about Denmark, but in the UK the old French word forêt refers to an area in which the king hunted.) When a local youth reaches a certain age he is granted a shooting licence and has the privilege of shooting the first deer of the hunt. This ancient tradition forms part of the contradiction/contrast of liberal/modern and conservative/traditional in this community.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is in one sense part of the traditional world as a hunter, but also both part of the modern world as a teacher who is a victim of education re-organisation. He has lost his job after the closure of the local comprehensive school and he has been transferred to the kindergarten/nursery school. (We don’t know the reason for the school closure – perhaps it is a case of falling pupil numbers, but Vinterberg is careful to show a diverse community suggesting new arrivals.) But when his innocent friendly behaviour is misunderstood by a young child, Lucas becomes the hunted – assumed by even his closest friends to be a dangerous man who must be shunned and punished. References have been made to all the well-known ‘witch hunt’ films from Frankenstein through to The Crucible. This is a rural community in which we see only four communal meeting places – the nursery school, the supermarket, the church and the country club/hunting lodge – which though it is a private house seems also to be the centre for social activity. It’s interesting that Lucas is effectively ‘barred’ or at least unwelcome in the first three but that the last is a kind of haven. We don’t hear the back story which would explain how Lucas became close friends with the owner and his family, so that Markus, Lucas’s son has a godfather in the community.
It isn’t difficult to make visual connections between the village/town in this film and that in countless other films, including many Hollywood films. The script plays with gender roles and genre elements so that Lucas is a character who is divorced from his wife (who we never see – she remains a voice at the end of a phone) with whom he tussles for custody of his teenage son. The accusation is that he has behaved inappropriately with a young girl so that his accuser becomes the older woman in charge of the nursery. Not surprisingly, the mother of the child (and the wife of his best friend) turns on him immediately. The only woman who is, at least initially, sympathetic is Nadja, a migrant worker – an ‘incomer’ to the closed community – played by the Swedish actress Alexandra Rapaport. The men of the community are pushed into macho roles and the thuggish behaviour of the male staff in the supermarket is reminiscent of the builders in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The casting of Daniel Engstrup, a very tall and beefy actor, enables Vinterberg to organise scenes that remind us of Westerns – in which the lone hero is menaced by groups of physically strong men. But Vinterberg also undercuts this by first presenting the ‘hunters’ as flabby city types reluctant to skinny dip in the local lake in an annual ritual.
Mikkelsen as star
There is no doubt that, carefully crafted though the script and direction might be, it is the star image and acting prowess of Mads Mikkelsen that gives The Hunt its edge. Voted ‘the sexiest man in Denmark’ by a woman’s magazine, Mikkelsen’s strong star image combines a rugged and nonchalant masculinity with a sense of vulnerability. There is a similar mix of ‘laddishness’, intelligence and ‘attitude’. Visually these qualities are emphasised or downplayed mainly by altering hairstyles, stubble and dress, but also by the use of spectacles. In the Hunt, Mikkelsen is almost boyish with the floppy hair and delicate specs – again a reminder of the bookish David (Dustin Hoffman) in Straw Dogs. The way in which Mikkelsen as Lucas is beaten up by the men is also reminiscent of the beatings experienced by a young Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars. But though there is a strong resemblance to Hollywood movies, the key sequence which perhaps emphasises ‘difference’ involves a trip to the supermarket when Lucas is confronted by the male group determined to keep him out. The script here presents a much more carefully thought through response rather than the explosion of violence that Hollywood might offer us.
If my analysis has suggested that The Hunt is straightforward in its narrative about the hunters and the hunted, I should stress that it is anything but. The narrative is seemingly ‘resolved’ but then continues with an epilogue a year later which raises questions again about ‘hunter’ an ‘hunted’ and puts some doubts in our minds about what we have seen. The film is indeed ‘open-ended’ and therefore potentially disturbing. It’s a must-see and stands up well to repeated viewings.