There’s a creeping discomfort that lay over every aspect of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 drama, Queen of Hearts. It begins with a portrait of idyllic family life in Denmark, with Trine Dyrholm’s Anne seemingly having it all. She’s a lawyer, high powered and career minded, but she still makes time for her two daughters, and her Doctor husband, Peter – played by Magnus Krepper. And even when Peter’s troubled son, the young Gustav, moves in and threatens to bring difficulties to the life Anne has made herself, things are quickly dealt with and the family return to their near perfect state, Gustav now a fixture. But, despite their perfect house in the woods, and their well-maintained family dynamic, things just feel off.
The film feels cold, almost heartless. El-Touky manages to imbue every scene with a bubbling intensity, one that threatens to overflow at any moment, and as a device it makes the film incredibly gripping. You can’t look away. Where is this going? How is this all going to come crashing down.
Crashing down is most certainly does come, but the movie takes its time, content to allow things to naturally unfold rather than rush to his plot points. As Anne begins a sordid, horribly uncomfortable love affair with the seventeen-year-old Gustav, we can’t help but watch on in horror. And el-Toukhy makes us a party to everything (and I do mean everything. There is a gross, unnecessarily graphic sex scene that made my skin crawl unlike anything else I’ve seen this year).
As their affair intensifies, so too does Anne’s confidence. She’s arrogant and seems to live under the assumption that she has total control over her life. She continues to maintain her superiority over almost everyone, even when it becomes drastically clear that she has none. She refuses to acknowledge it. At its core, Queen of Hearts is the study of a single woman; and she is one of the most dislikable, hypocritical and manipulative villains I have ever seen.
When the truth of their affair finally comes to light Anne switches on the cold and a calculating side that we have long since known was there. The film, too, almost shifts, with John Eckstrand’s strange and otherworldly score only furthering the change.
It is here, in this part of the narrative, that things really begin to take shape. The performances are all well pitched, with Dyrholm being the absolute standout. And the further into the deceit she finds herself, the less certain of herself she becomes. Her slow descent, as she begins to unravel much like the thread of the plot, is so carefully led out and presented with such detail, it makes for startlingly unnerving viewing. Dyrholm manages to bring a realism to a part that could have easily been over-the-top and almost pantomime in its execution.
She is less Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and more Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, through a series of poor choices finds herself in a situation where her intellect and her skill as a manipulator will afford her the opportunity to remain on top, but at the cost of her own humanity.
It’s bold, challenging filmmaking of the like we don’t tend to see from mainstream releases, but I’m glad it’s still available somewhere. And even if the film does start to lag as it goes on (coming in at just over two hours, it could have done with a couple of trims and another go around in the edit), the disturbing, almost insidious nature of the movie manages to strike through to the end.
And while the film is stylish enough, it presents its subject matter in a such an unobtrusive, matter-of-factly way, that we can’t help but shudder at the idea of this kind of dark, nasty behavior taking place in such recognizable normalcy. The final act, which is as suitably depressing and unnerving as anything preceding it, does little to comfort us. Despite Anne’s inevitable fall, we don’t get much satisfaction in it. There are no winners by the time the credits have rolled, and everyone has lost something.
While it isn’t perfect – the runtime does hold it back somewhat, and there are certain moments that could have done with a less is more approach (hello, absurdly graphic sex scene) – Queen of Hearts is genuinely one of the more engrossing movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching this year. Genuinely skin-crawling, with some terrific performances and striking visuals, it is a movie I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
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