Danish melodrama Queen of Hearts is an impressive one that lulls us into expecting a tale of an older middle-aged woman lured by the temptation of a younger man, but delivers some unnerving thematic twists turning into a darker beast than initially thought. May el-Toukhy directs this feature and co-writes with Maren Louise Käehne, and is wholly unafraid to tackle uncomfortable narrative territory.
Successful lawyer Anne (Trine Dryholm) lives a content life with husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) and her two daughters, however, this is rocked by the arrival of Peter’s son from a previous marriage Gustav (Gustav Lindh). Intrigued and aroused by Peter’s late teenage son, Anne begins a sexual affair with him, but as panic about Peter finding out escalates, the affair takes an unexpected turn.
Opening with a relaxed conventional family atmosphere, Anne and Peter’s life in remote, rural Denmark showcases a family with clear established routines and conventions. Anne and Peter are successful, hard-working people, yet there is a sense of unrest in the tense initial encounters between the couple – something explained as the narrative progresses. We see Anne’s sense of conviction and righteousness as she prosecutes rape trials – often defending vulnerable female victims and displaying a pious commitment to their cause.
Yet the arrival of Gustav prompts a change, Anne begins to question her worth as an woman at the sunset of middle-age – staring at her body in the mirror examining its normalcy. Long-lingering gazes between she and Gustav evoke a sense of sexual tension – playful flirting at family picnics, splashing at lakes, or hovering round the teenager’s room as he is getting changed. Anne’s intentions become clear upon her arousal after hearing Gustav and a female friend having sex. Whilst May el-Toukhy initial sets Anne up as character craving a sense of liberation, self-worth and excitement – the protagonist shifts in our perceptions after her first sexual encounter with Gustav.
Shot with explicit energy and closeness, there is an uncomfortableness in the highly-charged sex scenes that fill Queen of Hearts’ unsettling illicit relationship. Whilst both parties appear to be willing participants, as Anne’s fears of losing her comfortable life begin to creep in, the abusive power dynamic at play truly rears its head. May el-Toukhy cleverly twists the narrative from one of an older woman seeking validation to that of a disturbing tale of abuse, unlocking a fascinating potential in the narrative.
Throwing the broken-hearted Gustav under the bus and denying all part in the affair, the full extent of Anne’s moral degradation becomes shockingly apparent with Gustav’s role as abused victim also becoming clear. Veering into tragedy, Trine Dryholm’s performance is a masterfully calculating and complex managing to evoke our sympathy but also our disgust as things progress. Meanwhile Gustav Lindh asserts himself as an incredible talent – the full extent of his being-manipulated and hurt portrayed in a delicate, understated performance.
Shot with a subtle beauty by Jasper Spanning, hazy Danish summers and idyllic rural locales provide a picturesque setting for a challenging moral tale.
Writers el-Toukhy and Käehne’s feature is a complex moral thriller that explores the idea that honesty doesn’t pay as Anne turns against Gustav in order to protect the comforts of her everyday life. A brutal ending and raw, magnetic turns ensure that Queen of Hearts is not a film that viewers will easily forget.