A Royal Affair is a seemingly sharply executed period drama that we have seen before, then evolving into a wonderful, and infuriating, social commentary by the end.
Following the young Queen of Denmark, Caroline Mathilde, an English Princess who is married to King Christian VII of Denmark and follows a familiar path for many brides in the monarchy system. Basically sold off for the sake of power and alliance and their main goal is to get pregnant and birth a male heir as soon as possible. Christian is often a terrible husband, young and possibly clinically crazy, and he is only reigned in when he meets a small town doctor; Johann Struensee. Struensee is able to arrange an appointment for King’s Physician when he is referred by a pair of former Court members how are hoping to use their friend’s new role to influence their return to the King’s Court. Struensee, an anonymous Enlightenment thinker/author, is more than anyone could have bargained for and his friendship with the King allows him to rise in prominence to the highest levels of Denmark.
The title of the film is a spoiler and the eventual affair between Caroline and Struensee develops naturally and about as one would expect, its the way they layer in Christian’s relationship among the two of them that is intriguing. Christian’s relationship with Struensee is borderline sexual in nature and while we only see the King plow through countless town whores he can be rather touchy feely with his doctor. Making the relationship even odder is the juxtaposition against his disdain for Caroline; outside his affection for her being the mother of his children. Again, nothing terribly original, but everything is executed with near perfection by director Nikolaj Arcel.
Arcel makes a fine picture outside the romantic trappings and the period is meticulously recreated. Like most directors tackling big period dramas nowadays, Arcel brings plenty of contemporary flair and style to the film and while other directors might have had a bit more technical “wow”, Arcel’s film is still very fine to look at.
Where Arcel takes things to another level is the superb final act which pits the ousted religious Court members who attempt a coup on the King by proxy Struensee. The film builds feelings of anger as the actions of the ousted, along with the King’s stepmother, slowly stack up against Struensee and Caroline before things come to a head. The film’s statements on the Church’s overreach of power, using religion to control the poor and under informed and the lengths the powerful upper class will go to keep that power still rings true today. Struensee is a progressive thinker trying to set the lower class free and the stark image of the lower class being successfully manipulated through emotion over what is the best form them couldn’t feel anymore topical. Struensee’s story is what makes this film great and provided one of the strongest emotional reactions I’ve had to a film all year.
Mads Mikkelsenstars as Struensee and he does fantastic work as the secretive enlightened thinker. He has wonderful chemistry with his King and Queen co-stars, but he is also able to command the screen and make us believe he could have gotten to the position he eventually lands in. Mikkel Boe Følsgaardgets the flashiest role as the crazy King Christian and his manic devil slowly evolves into a likable and sympathetic character. Følsgaard’s ability to swing the audience is nothing short of a triumph and his sad and tragic King is a wonderful look at how even the supposed ruler of a land can be manipulated to others bidding. Alicia Vikandercontinues her breakout year and delivers even more great work to go along with Anna Karenina. She is a bit of a cold presence, but she shows plenty of power and affection for the one’s she love. Vikander is young and show’s a lot of promise and while she is very good here I can’t wait till she gets a breakout part. David Dencik also sneaks into another slimy role and will infuriate you to know end as he tries to bring down Struensee and Caroline.
A Royal Affair may seem like a standard period drama, but it has a lot to say about greed, power and the evils of religion. Three fine performances lead the film and Arcel gives them a fully realized world for them to perform in. The film’s messages on greed and social manipulation are pointed, accurate and biting commentary even today and it shows how little we have come from a time that was considered medieval even for its own time. A Royal Affair is an engaging drama that also sticks fairly close to the facts so you will learn a little history too, but the film’s ability to engage on a number of levels and suck you into it’s story is why you should seek this one out.
A Royal Affair is an A-