The professional relationship between director May el-Toukhy and actress Trin Dyrholm is becoming quite important to world cinema. From their collaboration on the enjoyable relationship film “Long Story Short” to the Bergmanesque brilliance of the Danish series “The Legacy,” the two artists seem to have an artistic symmetry to their collaborations. The director gets naturally powerful performances from her actress, who in turn is given inspiring canvases on which to work.
The two artists not only continue their streak but with the latest film, “Queen of Hearts,” el-Toukhy and Dyrholm have gifted us with one of the best films of the year, and one that deserves to see an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film (this is Denmark’s official submission) and a nod for Dyrholm in the Best Actress category.
“Queen of Hearts” is a frank tale of high personal drama that puts the abuse of power and its repercussions under the microscope.
With the tale of a stranger who inserts themselves into a family’s life only to wreck the familial bliss, audiences have been down this road many times. But for this film, director May el-Touky and her fellow screenwriter Maren Louise Kaehne throw in the damning taboo of a stepmother sleeping with her husband’s son.
Dryholm is Anne, a lawyer who specializes in cases of abused children. Her husband Peter (Manaus Krepper) is a successful doctor and they have two beautiful twin daughters. On the surface, life is good.
Anne and Peter’s home is a beautifully-designed symbol of success that is kept near-pristine with the help of a nanny. It has many windows and is sunlit to the point of perfection, apparently representing the beautiful golden bow that ties this family together.
But—all is not perfect. Anne is a superior lawyer who asserts her dominance over her cases with skill. That dominant trait follows her home and has put a cloud over Anne and Peter’s sex life.
Peter is annoyed by Anne’s forcefulness and is intimidated by her desire to be more sexually adventurous as she leaves middle age and their sex love suffers for it.
Anne desperately needs that release and intimacy. As much as Anne is a moral compass as a lawyer and has a skillful way of communicating with her young clients, there is a difficulty in turning that off when she gets home. It affects her ability to give her own daughters the proper attention they need. To her young clients, Anne has all the right words to comfort them during their dark time. To her own children, there is a self-imposed distance.
Enter Peter’s estranged son Gustav (a dangerously good Gustav Lindh) exuding a quiet intensity that holds a powerful sexuality. He has just been kicked out of a boarding school for disciplinary issues and comes with an attitude, assuring it will be a true challenge for this already troubled couple to assimilate this young man into their household.
One night Gustav brings home a young woman and Anne overhears them having sex. She is immediately turned on. Boiling over with marital dissatisfaction in just about every form, Anne almost immediately initiates her methodical seduction of Gustav.
The two of them enter into a sexually symbolic tango that begins when she sees him after a shower with only a towel and continues through Anne having Gustav give her a secret tattoo and arriving at an explicit sex scene that is shocking in everything it represents.
It is here where Anne fully becomes both paradox and contradiction. Her job is to get justice for abused children and she is steadfast in her demeanor as a lawyer. Yet Anne is now (by her own definition she would agree) a form of the manipulative monsters she fights against.
There is no love between Anne and Gustav. One could argue no respect either. Anne needs to feel alive and desired and Gustav is young enough to feed off of her hunger without question.
Sadly, husband/father Peter becomes more of an afterthought to both Anne and Gustav. Their “relationship” is much too dangerous but they almost completely turn their backs on caution.
Director el-Toukhy doesn’t sensationalize her material nor does she give easy answers. Anne’s is a savage downfall and one that comes due to her complete lack of judgement and emotion, something her character is not used to.
The aftermath of Anne’s actions unspool quite powerfully and realistically while the filmmaker expertly lays it all out with the precision of a thriller. Playing by the rules of Hitchcock, our director lets us know from the very opening moments that nothing will end well for this family. We are shown the “bomb” and then taken back to the beginning as we wait for it to explode.
As Anne Trin Dyrholm is stunning. The actress walks a perfect balance of her character’s contradictions. Dyrholm is smart in not bringing judgement to her portrayal. Anne’s situation is sad and morally corrupt but she is no villain. There is a remorse behind her eyes that lets us know she realizes dangerous gravity of her situation. Dyrholm uses this beautifully using looks and gestures and tone. While giving in to the monstrous actions of the people she prosecutes, Anne is, in reality, perhaps not a monster. She is a lost and conflicted soul in need of being desired and it is here where we, the audience, find ourselves conflicted. We begin to pity this woman even as she is the architect of her own destruction.
Trin Dyrholm’s work here deserves an Oscar nomination. I was completely blown away by her performance.
“Queen of Hearts” is a gut-wrenching film. A smart adult drama that examines how those who claim to be moral can destroy their lives with the weapons of their own hypocrisy. “Queen” is also one of the very best films of 2019.