Queen of Hearts

 

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The first feature film by May el-Toukhy to be released in the UK introduces us to a striking talent.

 
Queen of Hearts

Trine Dyrholm and Gustav Lindh

  

Back in 1962, Jules Dassin made an ill-fated attempt to modernise a famed tale from Greek mythology by updating the story of a woman who fell in love with her own stepson and he kept her name, Phaedra. Now we have a film which creates its own characters but nevertheless has that same situation at its heart. In this new piece, Queen of Hearts, it is a lawyer, Anne (Trine Dyrholm), who finds herself fatally drawn to the underage Gustav (Gustav Lindh) when, after the youth has been dismissed from school in Sweden, he comes to Denmark to stay with his father, Anne's husband Peter (Magnus Krepper). Early on there is a sense that some disenchantment now exists in this marriage since the couple often indulge in inharmonious exchanges. Even so, quite apart from the moral issue, it is madness for Anne to indulge in this affair since she is a mother with two very young daughters to bring up. In spite of that the step is taken and a parallel is implied in that a book being read to the girls is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and lines that we hear from it include the famous one about Alice falling down a rabbit hole.

 

Queen of Hearts is a distinguished work by the Danish/Egyptian director May el-Toukhy who is here renewing her collaboration with co-writer Maren Louise Käehne and with the actress Trine Dyrholm following on from their work on Long Story Short in 2015. What makes the film so distinctive is that the powerful material is presented neither as melodrama nor as a work which tells us simplistically what our responses should be. Instead this is a complex psychological drama that invites each viewer to draw their own conclusions over exactly what it is that drives the characters and as to the extent to which they deserve to be blamed for their actions. Peter, for example, might simply be seen as the victim, as the husband betrayed, but it was he who left his first wife and may well have let Gustav down in consequence. As for Anne, what we learn early on of her legal work (she is seen helping clients who have suffered abuse), invites strong sympathy for her and yet even here Dyrholm suggests a certain coldness under the surface and this fades only when Anne finds emotional fulfilment with Gustav. As for the youth himself, despite Dyrholm being the compelling centre of the film, Gustav Lindh brings the stepson fully to life as an individual and one who willingly reciprocates Anne's advances as soon as the affair begins.

 

It would be wrong to say too much about how the plot proceeds, but there are developments that take one by surprise. In my heart of hearts, I was more fully persuaded by the first two thirds of the film than by the rest, but that may be because some of my expectations were challenged. Had I felt no doubts at all I would have regarded Queen of Hearts as a masterpiece and in any case it is a work that deserved its Oscar nomination. The acting is top-notch, the writing full of telling detail and the use of music (be it Jon Ekstrand's original score or the celebrated Soft Cell song ‘Tainted Love’) is just one more feature that serves to confirm that May el-Toukhy is a director who is masterfully in command of her craft.

 

Original title: Dronningen.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, Magnus Krepper, Liv Esmår Dannemann, Silja Esmår Dannemann, Stine Gyldenkerne, Preben Kristensen, Frederikke Dahl Hansen, Ella Solgaard, Carla Philip Røder.

 

Dir May el-Toukhy, Pro Caroline Blanco and Rene Ezra, Screenplay Maren Louise Käehne and May el-Toukhy, Ph Jasper Spanning, Pro Des Mia Stensgaard, Ed Rasmus Stensgaard Madsen, Music Jon Ekstrand, Costumes Rebecca Richmond.

 

Nordisk Film Production/Danish Film Institute/DR/SVT/Swedish Film Institute-MUBI.
122 mins. Denmark/Sweden. 2019. Rel: 7 November 2020. Available on MUBI. Cert. 15.