Fourteen years have elapsed since Thomas Vinterberg's Festen - a disturbing, claustrophobic tale of sexual abuse in a Danish family - shook all who saw it. The chilling ensemble piece effectively launched the highly talented director, who together with Lars Von Trier was the founder of the film-making movement Dogme 95.

Set in a small Danish village, The Hunt (or Jagten in Danish) begins in the damp, stagnant month of November, and proceeds through December, leading up to what should, in theory, be a more hopeful Christmas time.

Forty-year-old Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen, the Bond villain in Casino Royale) is a popular figure at the local junior school, where he has a temporary contract. The recently-divorced father gets on exceptionally well with the kids and is the only male teacher.

All goes well, until the day he is confronted by the school principal with a young girl's allegation that he has sexually abused her. A counsellor or advocate is summoned and asks the girl leading questions, in the presence of the principal.

Until the arrival of the advocate, the principal appeared to be keeping an open mind, as the girl is known to have a vivid imagination. But the principal is swayed by the advocate's provocative line of questioning. As the story develops, the entirely female teaching staff decide to believe the young girl. To make matters worse, the girl's father Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) is Lucas' best friend and neighbour.

The film is a brilliant depiction of how a small town can gang up on an innocent party, as rumour spreads, gathering force and momentum. There are echoes of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (which dealt with the Salem Witch Trials) and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

The Hunt sets you thinking about such small communities and how quickly people might club together unthinkingly, almost as though there were some kind of ethical safety in numbers. Siding together against an individual, they remain uncontaminated themselves, they believe.

In fact the film's core concern is not sexual abuse, but mob mentality and the rush to judgment. The film plays out the ugly, modern-day equivalent of the witch hunt and there are certainly street angels and house devils. The males swim in winter lakes, shoot deer and indulge their macho and boorish drinking culture; the wives resignedly put up with it and the inevitable rows. Yet, one drinking and hunting friend believes in Lucas' innocence and is willing to help.

As always with Vinterberg - who co-wrote the film with Tobias Lindholm -prepare to be shook into thinking about the issues raised. The performances from Mikkelsen and Lasse Fogelstrøm as his son, Marcus - an unwitting victim in the whole affair - are immensely powerful and moving. The Hunt opens from November 30 at Cineworld, Lighthouse, IFI, Screen D'Olier Street, Dublin and IMC Dún Laoghaire.

Paddy Kehoe