May el-Toukhy's sexual abuse story is well acted and nicely shot but ultimately fails to justify the time spent with its odious protagonist
It’s rare to find a film that gets so many of its elements right and yet is impossible to recommend, but it’s into this category that the scandalous Danish drama Queen of Hearts falls. Here is a well-acted, well-shot, and intermittently compelling movie that can never quite overcome the repugnant amorality at the heart of its story. It’s about a wealthy, gaslighting sexual abuser who never has to face any sort of reckoning – if that sounds rather miserable on paper, it’s not much more edifying in practice.
Trine Dyrholm gives a powerfully steely performance as Anne, a lawyer specialising in domestic and sexual abuse cases who becomes infatuated with her 17-year-old stepson Gustav (Gustav Lindh) when he moves in following a falling out with his mum. Initially cold and standoffish, Gustav integrates into the family unit, taking on some care responsibilities for Anne’s young daughters, at which point Anne decides to sleep with him.
It’s a prurient premise, exacerbated by the presence of Anne’s oblivious chump of a husband and director May el-Toukhy’s choice to shoot the sex scenes in a very porny manner, making them into moments of titillation rather than the abuse they obviously are. These sequences suggest a failure to really reckon with the moral implications at the heart of the film’s story, though this does become less pronounced as the affair, inevitably, goes off the rails, revealing Anne’s odious true nature.
Dyrholm has a lot of work to do to make Queen of Hearts even remotely palatable, and though she’s let down by the writing and directing in key scenes, she salvages some of the most difficult moments in a way a lesser actor would find impossible. Opposite her, Lindh is also very impressive, and the pair have a powerful chemistry that is occasionally enough to distract you from the ickiness of it all.
There are certainly some exciting set pieces in Queen of Hearts, and it is admirably hard to predict without venturing into ludicrous twists, but there are some pivotal scenes and plot developments that hinge on an empathy for Anne that the film as a whole never earns. This becomes a particular problem as we lurch into the finale and it becomes increasingly hard to stomach spending time in Anne’s company.
There’s no doubt that Queen of Hearts is very competently made, but it fails to really answer the question of who it’s been made for. Its taboo-busting provocations feel thin, and spending two hours with a spiteful rapist is an unappealing cinematic prospect at the best of times, let alone as we head into a dark and cold lockdown.
There are some interesting messages at play about how far we trust people who have set themselves as moral guardians of the world, but the ultimate message of Queen of Hearts seems to be “look at how awful these people are,” which hardly feels revolutionary. Add to that the gratuitousness of the sex scenes and you have a film that mostly earns a reaction of disgust and the need to take a shower.
Queen of Hearts is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch