Saturday, February 2, 2013

Movie Review: A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair
Directed by:  Nikolaj Arcel.
Written by: Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel based on the book by Bodil Steensen-Leth.
Starring: Alicia Vikander (Caroline Mathilde), Mads Mikkelsen (Johann Friedrich Struensee), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (Christian VII), Trine Dyrholm (Juliane Marie), David Dencik (Ove Høegh-Guldberg), Thomas W. Gabrielsson (Schack Carl Rantzau), Cyron Melville (Enevold Brandt), Bent Mejding (J. H. E. Bernstoff), Harriet Walter (Augusta - Princess of Wales), Laura Bro (Louise von Plessen), Søren Malling (Hartmann).

A Royal Affair is the type of lavish, historical romantic drama that we always see this time of the year – a prototypical “Oscar bait” movie, about a beautiful young Queen (Alicia Vikander) who does the unthinkable and falls in love with someone not her husband. In this case, that is Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a German doctor hired to be the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), who ends up sleeping with the King’s English wife.

This probably sounds like something you’ve seen before – and in many ways you would be right. The difference in A Royal Affair is that the filmmakers are as interested in the title affair itself – but rather in the politics of the time (the late 1700s in Denmark), and how Struensee did everything possible to drag the country into the age of Enlightenment – and for a brief time succeeded. He is seen as a hero in Denmark today – not so much at the time he was around.

The nicest way to describe King Christian VII would be to say he was feeble minded. He is certainly not very bright, and would no doubt be diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder were he alive today, but no one was all that interested in doing that at the time. Because Christian is a perfect foil. The learned council – full of religious zealots and the rich – passed laws that suited them, and not those that helped the common man. Christian attends all these meetings so he can sign off on all these laws – when he asks what he’s signing, they simply tell him not to ask questions, and just sign, and he does.

But then two people come into his life who will end up changing not just him but the country. The first is his beautiful English bride Caroline Mathilde, who is a modern woman, upset that most of her books were sent back to England because they had been banned in Denmark. She is horrified to discover her husband really is a silly twit – more in love with dog than anything else. But she does what she was raised to do – become Queen of Denmark, and give the King an heir – after which, she promptly banishes him for her bedchamber. Then comes Struensee, who is one of many doctors interviewed by the King to be his personal doctor. Struensee immediately sees how childish Christian is, and knows just what to do to manipulate him. Soon Christian sees Struensee as his “best friend” and confidant – and Struensee sees how he can get Denmark to become a modern country – which in this time means things like ending serfdom, banning torture and opening orphanages. It is also clear that Struensee and Caroline are drawn to each other – the share similar ideals, and are both saddled with the King, who they don’t really like, but need to accomplish their goals. It’s only a matter of time before they will fall into bed with each other.

A Royal Affair is an extremely handsomely mounted production. It has all the trappings of this kind of movie – beautiful costumes and production design, lush cinematography, a romantic score. The film is one of the most expensive made in Danish history – and may well get an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, as it is their entry (beating out The Hunt, also starring Mikkselsen). But A Royal Affair is also more concerned with ideas than most costume dramas of this sort. In fact, it is the romance between Struensee and Caroline that gets the short end of the stick here – the movie is so concerned with the politics, the maneuverings of Struensee, and his rivals on the council, and how they all manipulate Christian, that it almost feels like the pair fall into bed simply because the plot requires them to. Both Mikkselsen and newcomer Vikander are very good in their roles, but the sexual chemistry between the two of them isn’t quite there. They seem better suited to each other when they are discussing their ideals than in the throes of passion.

Still, I think that’s why I liked A Royal Affair. I’ve seen too many movies set in this time period, or shortly before and after, where people who are not supposed to fall in love with each other inevitably do just that. The movies often use society’s outrage at the lovers as proof of just how backwards that society is. But A Royal Affair knows that there were more important things wrong with society, other than the fact that it kept lovers apart. And this makes A Royal Affair an engrossing costume drama.

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