For those of you being particularly thorough with your Oscar watch list this year, A Royal Affair is Denmark’s entry into the Not-Amour category; for fans of sumptuous costume dramas, the film is equally unfortunate to not be Anna Karenina, although it comes close; and for history buffs, the movie dramatizes another example of slightly anachronistic takes on Enlightenment ideals battling it out with simplistically cruel, backwards religious superstition. But the story backing all of these generalizations is kind of awesome in its own right, and is executed well enough that A Royal Affair very nearly transcends its clichés. It is, in any case, mesmerizing to watch.
Upon entering into an arranged marriage with King Christian VII of Denmark, English Princess Caroline Mathilde notices something amiss when her new husband rushes up the palace steps to greet his dog over his bride, giggling maniacally. A mentally unstable idiot and a puppet, Christian relegates his wife to exquisite loneliness until the arrival of new court physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who dares to loan her copies of Voltaire and simmers with libertine notions like ‘sanitation,’ and ‘free press,’ and ‘revised legal codes.’ With Stuensee, Caroline finds a marriage of minds that thaws her out and inspires both her and Struensee to use their influence on the king to change the course of Danish history. Oh, and to also have lots and lots of sex.
A Royal Affair wisely puts its stress on the ‘royal.’ Doomed court romances – the film is framed by Caroline’s letter to her children from exile – can only play out so many ways. Where the films succeeds is in portraying the idealism of the two leads as (more than) equally what thrills them and fills them with fire. The film does a fantastic job establishing how aristocrats pay for privilege by being completely controlled, and so when Caroline muses, “All men are born free and yet they are everywhere in chains,” it’s clear she’s looking to John Locke for an understanding of her own plight and possible salvation, not on behalf of Les Miserables. This spices the reform measures undertaken by Caroline and Struensee with a personal flavor and a fervor that actually ignites the stale Enlightenment ideals we moderns take as self-evident.
The two best, and best looking, things about this film are, however, Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as Christian, who deftly balances being a vindictive prig and a bewildered victim of his own psychosis. Mikkelsen uses his considerable intensity seen in Valhalla Rising and Casino Royale and bridles them in Struensee, a man painfully ahead of his time, his agency muted by station and social conventions.
Oddly, as Stuensee rises in favor and eventually comes to control the government, he remains almost just as cool a customer. He can never quite get over, it seems, being a provincial doctor, and this pays off in his eventual fall from power and Queen Caroline’s banishment. The emotions are as high-flown as in any costume drama, but A Royal Affair keeps them tethered, a little, making the viewer pay more attention to the subtleties of expression and composition. And the craft in this film – from its austere, Rembrandt lighting to its meticulous costumes to its quiet, assured camerawork – is well worth looking at closely.
If anything, though, A Royal Affair is a little too muted, stifled, and dispassionate. While the chemistry between Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander is fine, there aren’t really a lot of sparks in their relationship: this ain’t Grease. The film is overly studied – there frankly isn’t a lot of camera movement, either, to liven up the scenes. Long, lingering takes on lushly color-graded frames are what’s supposed to transport you – and it’s seemingly overly respectful to Struensee and his historic significance to Denmark. He, and his relationship to Christian, takes over the movie for most of the second act; and while this does make us feel poor Caroline is as marginalized as she probably was, it doesn’t make her drama more compelling.
The villains of the piece, too, are the most grotesque caricatures of crony court noblemen, with their man-makeup and poofy wigs and contempt for orphanages. They’re absurd, but not funny-absurd the way Mr. Burns is, or not even absurd-as-a-fact-of-nature, as is Mr. Potter of It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s difficult to care about why these silk stockings are bent on undoing Caroline and Struensee, or to be engaged watching them go about it. The framing device is the film’s saving grace, as its pall of doom does way more than the King’s council to render A Royal Affair’s lovers suitably tragic.
Definitely more thinky than your average period romance, A Royal Affair’s love triangle and lush production values are enough to make it worth watching. Just don’t expect a lot of fan-fiction to come from this one.
Take a Drink: every time something is banned or censored.
Take a Drink: every time a new law is declared.
Take a Drink: every time Christian ‘acts’ badly.
Take a Drink: for every Enlightenment philosopher quote.
Finish Your Drink: when the King is told to go play with a little friend.