A child’s lie spreads poison in a Danish town

In the intense drama “The Hunt,” it takes very little – a lie told by a child – to transform the solid citizens of a small Danish town into a wolfpack. The object of their wrath is a kindly male kindergarten teacher wrongly accused of sexual abuse by one of the girls in his charge.

It’s hard to watch this decent man’s life fall apart. The film’s intensity derives from a fine screenplay by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, restrained direction from Vinterberg and a haunting performance by Mads Mikkelsen.

Mild-mannered Lucas (Mikkelsen) lives in a hunting village, trying to get himself together after losing a job and enduring a divorce. He aches to see more of his teenage son (Lasse Fogelstrom). Lucas is fond of the youngsters in his care, and they dote on him – too much so, in the case of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen).

Klara is coping with a troubled home life and recently caught a disturbing glimpse of Internet porn. Miffed at Lucas for what she sees as a rebuff of her affections, she winds up making an allegation to the head of the school. A psychologist is brought in and asks the girl leading questions.

The film charts how the poison spreads, as parents of Klara’s classmates are asked to look for (questionable) signs of molestation, such as nightmares.

To his astonishment, Lucas is soon the object of multiple false accusations, and naively believes he’ll be cleared. Klara’s attempts to recant are ignored. The hostility becomes open, even violent. The relentless pressure affects Lucas’ bonds with his few supporters: his new girlfriend, his son and the boy’s godfather.

Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale,” “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky”) is very good at conveying Lucas’ mounting horror at the enormity of what he’s up against, and his growing defiance, which leads to a climactic confrontation at a church service. The performance is skilled enough that it won the top acting award at last year’s Cannes festival.

In a few instances the film is atypically heavy-handed – its use of a hunting metaphor and an incident involving a dog. But in general, the self-effacing direction by Vinterberg allows the troubling story and Mikkelsen’s work to carry us along.