What to expect of a film with the title Queen of Hearts? Well it stars Trine Dyrholm, an actor who guarantees a certain level of quality. English speaking audiences might remember her for films like Nico, 1988, in which she played the tragic junkie and onetime singer with the Velvet Underground, or alongside Pierce Brosnan in Love Is All You Need, a romantic drama for grown-ups.
She also took a key role in the excellent TV series The Legacy, a tale of poisonous family dynamics, some episodes of which were directed by May el-Toukhy, who’s in charge here too.
Though she can prettty much do it all from high drama to low comedy, Dyrholm’s got a particular set of skills that make her particularly suitable in roles playing smart, devious and conflicted women, which is exactly what we get in this bleak Danish drama.
Life is sweet for Anne (Dyrholm) at the suburban end of the Danish dream. A honeyed existence in a big gorgeous modernist house with husband Peter and their two daughters is disrupted for a while when Gustav (Gustav Lindh), her husband’s son from a previous relationship, turns up from Sweden to live with them. Difficult teenager, his mother can’t cope, it’s dad’s turn to shoulder the burden etc.
Gustav is angry that he’s been sent away and initially unco-operative in the extreme. He’s also a good-looking young man, something Anne notices when she accidentally surpises him just wrapped in a towel after a shower.
Shortly afterwards Anne is peeling off her own clothes in the privacy of her own room to examine her body in the mirror.
What’s obviously going to happen but shouldn’t is that Anne falls for Gustav, though she’s maybe 30 years older than him. And falls badly. Director May el-Toukhy goes into shimmer mode in this part of the film, as Anne blunders around incapacitated by her own infatuation, and composer Jon Ekstrand goes along for the ride with music that’s lilting and beguiling.
And then, unable to sleep one night and with her husband pulling another all-nighter at work, she goes into the boy’s bedroom an… oh dear.
Graphic sex, dear reader, graphic sex. Look away if penises offend.
I’m not giving away any more of the plot than the publicity shots have already revealed. In any case, thus far seemed to be on the cards from very early on. It’s only after Anne and Gustav have done the deed that the film really announces what it’s about, as exposure, recrimination and tragedy pile up one on the other, and Dyrholm gets to work through a considerable range of emotions.
Two points of comparison spring to mind. The Mother, which saw Daniel Craig launching into an affair with a much older woman (Anne Reid), though Craig wasn’t playing a minor, and 2012’s The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt similarly exposed acres of middle-aged flesh, as Dyrholm does here – both fine-looking women, for sure, but both in the one-piece rather than bikini stage of life.
It’s a tense film from the get-go, but once it moves into the last half, when the focus shifts almost entirely onto Anne, lying like crazy to keep the show on the road, the whole thing becomes almost unbearably knuckle-whitening.
Though technically this isn’t a film about incest – Anne and Gustav are not blood relatives – it is close, since the sense of a betrayal of trust is the same. Nor is it strictly Oedipal either, though those are the dynamics and that’s what’s so delicately examined in the screenplay by Maren Louise Käehne and el-Toukhy.
Oedipus famously sleeps with his mother and kills his father. Gustav’s dad, Peter, Anne’s husband, is to an extent an absence, both as a parent in the family home – he’s often working – and as a character whose feelings are examined. Perhaps that’s a weakness in the storytelling. If it is, it’s the only one.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021