Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a mild-mannered fellow, middle-aged and divorced, living in a picturesque small town in Denmark. He works at the local kindergarten where the kids all adore him---a few times we see them hiding in the schoolyard in the morning, waiting to playfully pounce on Lucas as he approaches. As the Christmas season draws near, things are going well for Lucas. His teenage son, who lives with his ex-wife in a different town, now wants to come live with him. Additionally, Lucas has started seeing a fun, energetic woman who also works at the kindergarten.
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But not everyone in his life is so happy. Little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who attends the kindergarten and is also the daughter of Lucas' best friend, is feeling a bit neglected. Her parents are busy and arguing often and Klara sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Lucas keeps a kind and paternal eye on Klara, walking her to and from school when needed and letting her play with his pet dog. But when Klara naively kisses Lucas on the lips and he lets her know that her action was inappropriate, she feels hurt and rejected and complains to a different kindergarten teacher that she hates Lucas. More specifically, her memory flashing back to a brief glimpse of pornography she saw her older brother watching, Klara speaks angrily about Lucas in a sexually explicit way. This greatly alarms the teacher, who thinks that Lucas must have molested Klara to make her say such a thing, and she tells others of her suspicions. Soon, although he is completely innocent, Lucas' world begins to fall apart as the town burns with hatred for him, harassing him in ways both large and small. He loses his job. He is bullied out of grocery stores. The hunt is on, in sickeningly plausible detail, and we wonder if Lucas will be able to recover his life in any form.
Best part of story, including ending:
A lesser movie, I think, would have been quick to villainize the character of Klara. It would have made her a little brat who accuses Lucas of something horrible out of pure spite because, hey, some kids can be monsters and we gotta get this plot moving, right? What this film does very well is show us Lucas and Klara interacting, pleasantly, quite a bit before things go bad. We understand the innocence of her crush, we understand how lonely she sometimes is.
The actress who plays Klara is wonderful; extremely naturalistic right down to her whisper-voice and sniffling cold. She reminds one of a tiny blonde elf. As she mutters the damning statements about Lucas, we see in her eyes that she doesn't grasp the true gravity and permanence of what she's saying. It's just an unfortunate mistake. The townspeople react with vitriol toward Lucas, but they're just defending this little girl who really is sweet and vulnerable. Lucas' descent into being the town pariah is made that much more chilling because it begins so easily and almost casually.
Best scene in story:
I liked the scene where Lucas' teenage son confronts Klara about her accusations, which he determinedly does not believe. It's a very uneasy blend of wrongdoing and gratification, because he goes way overboard in his attacks on the young girl. He spits in her face, he calls her a bitch. It's an ugly affair. Her parents have to physically throw him out of the house. But at the same time, he's defending his father who, so far in the film, has been frustratingly passive and non-confrontational despite all the abuse hurled his way in town. There's a catharsis to the scene, even if the teenager is going about things the wrong way. He's the one person not coddling Klara, and just bluntly asking her to explain herself. It's a great gray moment where we're truly unsure what we're supposed to think.
Opinion about the main character:
My main issue with the film actually was the somewhat thin, saintly characterization of Lucas. Yes, we know that he's good and decent and innocent of any misconduct. That's important to the main plot and isn't inherently bad as far as writing goes. Of course there can be humane, kind characters! But at times, he is perfect to the point of being dull. Does Lucas not have ANY flaws or quirks? Anything notable to further highlight his transformation and plight during the scandal? He's been through a divorce, which is certainly a messy situation where both parties get dirty. Yet, in his conversations with his ex-wife, she comes across as impossible and rude. And Lucas comes across as nothing but extremely (and blandly) patient. It seems a wasted opportunity to give some layers to his character.
We're supposed to be watching the downfall of a good man as things go south for Lucas, but it's more like watching someone stepping on a butterfly and grinding their shoe into the concrete. It's too one-sided and deflates some of the tension and realism. I wanted him to get just a little madder, have a little more of a glint in his eye from the start, just something more than what we ultimately get. I felt I didn't know who Lucas was beyond being a victim.