A Royal Affair would seem almost formulaic of the Courtly Romance genre were it not so meticulously historically accurate. It manages to present a satisfying and narratively convenient period piece stimulated by the concurrence of forbidden love and transgressive political change while doing no damage to the truth. In fact, were it historical fiction some would call it unrealistic.
All the better then that such a romantic annal of Danish history is here expounded upon in such rich costumes, scenery, and performances. A bizarre love triangle, A Royal Affair tells the story of the mentally disturbed King Christian VII of Denmark’s reluctant reign and marriage to the equally reluctant Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) and their respective relationships with the progressively minded personal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), whose ambition both seductively and philosophically transforms the royal figures. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) explodes with the eccentric hedonism of a maladapted child, Caroline seethes the resigned depression of a woman who never got to make any decisions about her own life, and Johan shines the ambition, intelligence, and cunning to unleash both characters’ stifled potentials, at the risk of his own security in the Danish court. Just as Caroline first turns her approving eye on Johann after noticing a copy of Rousseau in his study, the political philosophy of the Enlightenment informs the film’s romance, becoming the very vehicle by which Johan gains King Christian’s affections as well.
All three actors turn in deft and complimentary performances, a pyramid of wild, stifled, and effective displays, especially from Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, whose at once odious and pitiful depiction of Christian VII earned him the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. His performance as a mad, boyish Danish king who is easily swayed by the silverest tongue in the room pays due allusion to the most famous mad Prince of Denmark, as many quotings and even performances of “Hamlet” abound throughout the culturally informed dialogue. He is similarly hesitant to act, as Shakespeare’s prince, and spends much of the film being forced to sign documents he barely understands, until Johan prompts him to join Europe as a figure of real, progressive change, even prompting Voltaire’s praise. Caroline does not, however, admire the improvement of her husband, but rather the calm, controlled manner of the man who manages to improve him.
Indeed Mads Mikkelsen also shines as the Enlightenment-minded Struensee, turning in a tempered performance punctuated with moments of powerful albeit restrained emotional outbursts: emotive, suddenly wet eyes, shouts of anger that quickly subside. Alicia Vikander alternately maintains a consistent mood of seething resentment in her performance as Caroline, a fully displayed distaste for her royal position, and even direct defiance of it, such as when she screams as loud as she can when a royal instructor tells her to give birth quietly.
The film manages to be thematically centered on the Enlightenment while depicting the lack of it. By the contrast of the reactionary Danish councils resistance to Struensee’s bright ideas as enacted by Christian, the force of the Enlightenment spreading through the rest of Europe hovers unseen yet ever-present in the audience’s mind. The film plays consciously with sharp contrasts of light and darkness to these ends, hearkening to the symbolism of the time, although perhaps a bit too obviously on more than one occasion.
While the characters talk frequently of the cruel state of peasant life in their time, only brief moments of it are shown. The state of the poor for whom the radical progressions are made are celebrated and denounced by the royal council in courtroom drama fashion. The film is, as stated, a royal affair, and though it functions in many ways as a criticism of the Danish rulership of the time, it is, save a brothel or two, visually built almost entirely out of decadent palaces and lush estates. They are as picturesque as one might expect.
The only area in which the film lacks, to the fault of its historical loyalty, is in failing to get ahead of the audience. As soon as the three leads have come together on the screen the viewer has a pretty good sense of where the film is headed. The ensuing conflicts set on with the torturous dramatic irony of a slow-motion train wreck. The same goes for the story’s romance, which, in another instance of self-aware high reference, plays exactly as anyone who knows Sir Thomas Mallory’s Mort’ D Arthur would expect such courtly love to. But sometimes history is more formulaic than fiction, and the well-educated characters seem to navigate their rise and fall well-informed by their “Hamlet” and “Arthur” and so nobly confident of their own story’s arc as much as the audience. In this sense it plays out like a tale everyone’s already heard, but would love to hear again, especially in such a well-executed delivery.
A not so unsung hero of this film, as with most well-executed period pieces, will no doubt be Manon Rasmussen, whose fantastic costumes inform the film’s nudity as well as its adornedness, lavishly contrasting the overgrown scared child of Christian in royal trappings, demonstrating the class adjustment of Carolina, and highlighting the quiet effectiveness of Johan in muted, more modest colors.
As a period piece the film will delight the 20/20 hindsight of its post-Enlightenment audience, as any film of inspiring political reform should do, while simultaneously entertaining regulars of the romance. But viewers should expect as much hardship as such beauty must endure to remain interesting. And they shouldn’t expect to be too surprised; this is a story history tends to tell time and time again.