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I’ve written before that I’ll be surprised if Thomas Vinterberg’s hot-button melodrama “The Hunt” – which was released in New York and Los Angeles on Friday – isn’t selected as Denmark’s representative in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. I’ll be even more surprised if it isn’t an eventual nominee, but for now, we’re dependent on national committee decisions before we can speculate further. Whatever its fate in that category, however, there’s another where I think it’s worth flagging up the film as a dark horse: Best Actor for Mads Mikkelsen.
Yes, yes, you don’t need to tell me all the reasons why this is unlikely to happen. Any foreign-language performance enters the race having to work that much harder to get seen at all, after all, and a midsummer release date doesn’t make matters any easier. “The Hunt” took $44,000 on its four-screen release last weekend: a respectable rather than stunning result that doesn’t portend a significant arthouse hit. Magnolia Pictures is no Sony Pictures Classics yet in the campaigning department: the boutique distributors have great taste, but their awards-season success has largely been limited to the documentary and foreign-language ghettos. And while Marion Cotillard’s win for the modestly backed springtime release “La Vie en Rose” is a noble exception, Mikkelsen’s isn’t the kind of flashy, all-stops-out work that overrides more parochial voters’ limitations.
Still, if we don’t keep the conversation inclusive at this early stage of the season, we’re only making things duller for ourselves, and Mikkelsen has a few significant factors in his favor – beginning with the performance itself, which won him Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. (Recent winners of that award have been treated pretty well by the Academy: Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds," Javier Bardem in "Biutiful" and Jean Dujardin in "The Artist" all began their Oscar runs with a Croisette victory. Meanwhile, this year's winner, Bruce Dern in "Nebraska," is a likelier bet than Mikkelsen to follow suit.)
As I’ve said, I was less impressed than most with “The Hunt,” a specious, borderline-misogynistic and admittedly well-made moral drama built entirely on straw-man social critique, but the straight-backed integrity of Mikkelsen’s performance as a kindly schoolteacher unjustly accused of child abuse is pretty much beyond reproach. There’s a grave, intelligent decency about Mikkelsen as a performer that is at its least compromised in Vinterberg’s wholly admiring character showcase.
It’s the kind of studious, sympathetic performance that would find plenty of fans even among more staid Academy types, if they just happened to see it – particularly if they proved susceptible, as most viewers have been, to the film’s ethical arguments and emotional manipulations. A twin Best Foreign Language Film campaign would aid visibility in that respect, while critical response to the film and performance alike seems only to have grown warmer since an already well-received Cannes bow. My own voting group, the London Film Critics’ Circle, nominated Mikkelsen for their Best Actor award last year. Might any of their US counterparts be similarly moved?
The chief point in Mikkelsen’s favour, however, is Mikkelsen himself. Familar to English-speaking audiences since his villainous turn in “Casino Royale” in 2006, the 47-year-old Dane has, in recent years, grown into a genuinely international star. There are viewers who will never see or hear of “The Hunt” who are nonetheless fans of his sly, silky Hannibal Lecter in the NBC series “Hannibal” – and that kind of cross-platform presence counts for a lot. (All the more so if he nabs an Emmy nod for “Hannibal” on Thursday – it’s another long shot, though our TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg are both rooting for him.)
Mikkelsen’s now at the enviable stage in his career where he can alternate between native-tongue art films (like “The Hunt” and last year’s Oscar nominee “A Royal Affair”) to classy English-language fare like the upcoming John Le Carre adaptation “Our Kind of Traitor” to a voicework gig in “Kung Fu Panda 3.” Like three-time Oscar nominee Javier Bardem, a comparable foreign-language heartthrob welcomed by Hollywood, he now has the gift of celebrity with flexibility. Could that translate into an Oscar nomination? Most likely not yet. But he deserves to be – if you’ll forgive me – in the hunt.
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