A Royal Affair

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This royal affair unfolds in the court of the king of Denmark in the late 18th century when revolutionary ideas were taking root across Europe. The beauty of this drama in costume is that it pays as much attention to the period details as it does to the forces of freedom, equality and liberty that defined the times in which it is set. It says a lot for the quality of the screenplay.

A marriage takes place, one of those arrangements of royal convenience. The groom is the young and incompetent King Christian VII (Mikkel Bøe Folsgaard), a real handful. Clearly intelligent, but erratic, he takes refuge in lunacy when head-of-state duty calls or he wants to escape the company he is forced to keep. His bride Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a sibling of the king of England, is lovely and accomplished but Christian is far more comfortable showing affection to his pet hound and enjoying the favours of prostitutes.

A German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), is appointed his minder. An unlikely post for a small town doctor who tends to the poor and writes revolutionary pamphlets in secret, but he has a way about him that the king responds to. They start out sparring with quotes from Shakespeare and end up visiting the whores together.

There’s more to Struensee though. Did he have a hidden agenda? Possibly. The queen, who is his patient too, takes an interest in his vast collection of books and borrows his copy of Rousseau. The physician encourages her to get out more and enjoy the fresh air with him on horseback—and things go from there. I wonder how the current Danish royals feel about this period of their history.

A Royal Affair has brought a fascinating and, for me, obscure piece of European history to life. Director Nicolaj Arcel and his screenwriter, who collaborated on the screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, handle the large sprawling canvas well.

The three central characters are models of complexity and humanity. The actors Folsgaard and Mikkelsen and Vikander are each wonderful in their own way. Expect to see a lot more of Folsgaard. As mad monarchs go, his Christian is a brilliant, nuanced portrait of a man desperate to escape his fate. Mikkelsen we already know from some pretty strong stuff for Danish director Susanne Bier and his mainstream work, and he is always worth watching.

Speaking of mad monarchs, this king was in command of his senses. He understood the need for social reform. When the radical contagion saw the mob taking to the streets and heads of state quaking on their thrones everywhere, he kept his head.

In a capsule: A scandalous affair in the Danish royal court set against the broad canvas of the ideas of enlightenment as they radicalised Europe in 18th century. So well written and delivered with marvellous central performances, it really delivers.

4 stars