'Queen of Hearts': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Uncivilized behavior in a civilized land.

This Danish drama directed by May el-Toukhy takes a look at some very dark doings amid an ultra-civilized Scandinavian society.

The wages of familial sin and deceit are on full display in Queen of Hearts, a potent Danish drama that peels back the veneer of an ultra-civilized Scandinavian lifestyle to take a dark look at some very out-of-bounds behavior. In her second feature, after the 2015 ensemble relationship comedy Long Story Short, director May el-Toukhy maintains an impressive grip on the tone of an insidious tale that delineates the transformation of a successful professional woman's personal conduct from supremely self-confident to malevolently manipulative and beyond.

Given that her eventual actions call to mind those of Glenn Close's 'round-the-bend vengefulness in Fatal Attraction, this may not go down well in some "woke" quarters at the moment, but there's no denying the filmmaker's narrative command and the ever-accruing force of her story.

Deservedly or not, Scandinavians have long been known for their liberally enlightened view of sexual matters, but this film seems geared to assert that they're second to none when it comes to hypocrisy. El-Toukhy, who co-wrote with Maren Louise Kaehne, devotes much of the tale's first half to creating a tapestry of familial tranquility and well-being: The forty-something Anne (Trine Dyrholm of last year's Nico, 1988) is a successful lawyer who adroitly manages balancing her career, raising two young daughters and being there for her doctor husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) at their lovely home in the woods. Although it appears things have cooled off for them between the sheets, the couple looks to have worked out a reasonable m.o. with a lifestyle most of the world would envy.

True, there is something about Anne that goes beyond self-assurance to seem a bit high-handed, a sense that she feels so evolved as to believe she's always right about everything. But she's practical and reasonable enough to be indulgent of others' weaknesses; as she regards her naked self in the mirror, you get the feeling that she's cognizant of her aging and flaws but also proud of what she's still got to offer.

Enter Gustav (Gustav Lindh), Peter's teenage son by a previous relationship. The kid's had a troubled upbringing, tends toward sullenness and has never been part of a proper family. He's also quite good-looking, mature for his years and very sexually inclined. The bad boy ignites the bad girl in this woman about three times his age; after a frolic in the lake, Anne lets the kid adorn her with a tattoo. Leaving her husband and guests at home, they proceed to a bar, where she peppers him with very personal questions before kissing him full on the lips.

At this point, you really have to wonder: Does she actually want this to happen? Has she sufficiently let go of her senses to sleep with her husband's son? The answer comes in a startling hardcore interlude (one that seems as unnecessary as it is explicit) that, after the fact, leaves you wondering if the deed was worth the risk.

All the same, the relationship blossoms into a full-fledged affair as active as it is ill-advised. What becomes most interesting, as well as aggravating, about Anne is her capacity for carrying on this massively inappropriate relationship while at the same time being so judgmental about other people's behavior in far less consequential matters; she unquestionably views herself as morally and ethically superior to others, including members of her own family, and yet is the most hypocritical person imaginable, hatefully so before too long.

In the end, it's an appalling tale of someone who feels so superior and ethically evolved that she's entitled to do anything if she can get away with it. The film maintains its edge because el-Toukhy serves up this unsavory dish cold, without any mollifying humanistic judgments or reassurances that people are actually better than this. The central character is as heartless as any treacherous double-crosser in a film noir, but without the constant stylistic reminder that we live in a nasty, dark, dog-eat-dog world.

Quite the opposite, in fact, as el-Toukhy has made a point of delivering her autopsy on the human condition in a notably decorous and inviting environment, filled with walks in the woods, splashes in the lake, civilized drinks before dinner and relaxed downtime with friends and family. That such behavior could be going on between a teenage boy and his stepmother in this soothing and utterly civilized corner of the world, and all right in front of the kid's father, makes Anne's behavior feel even more insidious.

This is Dyrholm's show and she gives it her all, emotionally and physically, delivering a full account of a woman who does whatever she wants because she believes she can get away with it. Krepper is entirely credible as a kid arrogant enough to think he can swim in the deep end.

This elegantly made film gets a strong assist from Jon Ekstrand's sophisticated and unusual score.

Production company: Nordisk Film Production
Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, Magnus Krepper
Director: May el-Toukhy
Screenwriters: Maren Louise Kaehne, May el-Toukhy
Producers: Caroline Blanco, Renee Ezra
Executive producer: Henrik Zein
Director of photography: Jasper J. Spanning
Production designer: Mia Stensgaard
Costume designer: Rebecca Richmond
Editor: Rasmus Stensgaard Madsen
Music: Jon Ekstrand
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)

127 minutes