“A Royal Affair” is not as racy as it sounds. This highly polished costume drama is exceptionally well-made and a model of intelligent restraint, but it also is unapologetically earnest and a bit on the bloodless side.
Though the illicit physical passion implied by the title is part of the story, this Danish film (the country’s best foreign-language Oscar entry) is more about a transgressive couple’s zeal for freedom and political reform, which, while noble and involving, is not exactly barn-burner material.
As co-written by Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel (screenwriter for the Danish version of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and directed by Arcel, “Affair” sticks fairly close to the historical record as it stars the protean Mads Mikkelsen as a German physician who ends up the power behind the throne at a critical moment in 18th century Danish history.
Before we meet the good doctor, we are introduced to Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander), a British noblewoman (the sister of King George III, in fact) who was married to Denmark’s King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) in 1766.
Caroline was hoping for a storybook romance, but this was far from the case. From her first sighting of her future husband, glimpsed hiding behind a tree and shown to be more involved with his dog than any human being, it is clear the king is more deranged than regal.
Already upset because many of the books in her library have been shipped home by a royal censor, Caroline is aghast at the thought that marriage to this man will be all her life has to offer. She needn’t have worried. On one of his numerous trips abroad, the king makes the acquaintance of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen), an idealistic German country doctor who finds himself maneuvered into the position of being the king’s personal physician.
The disturbed royal takes a shine to Struensee because the dour-looking doctor acts more like the king’s wingman than his physician. The fact that Struensee is a devoted man of the Enlightenment who believes in personal freedom and good government is something no one thinks the ruler needs to know.
Caroline at first views this new member of the court as another obstacle between her and her husband, but they soon bond over a mutual passion for Jean Jacques Rousseau and his thoughts on equality.
Mikkelsen, one of Scandinavia’s top actors, is compelling as Struensee, and Vikander, who plays Kitty in Joe Wright’s version of “Anna Karenina,” is equally good, but all this interest in the rights of man is, while admirable, not a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Making the story more complicated is the fact that Struensee, who is close to the oblivious king even while sleeping with his wife, gets the idea of having the monarch be his frontman for pushing reforms.
Christian VII is reluctant to do this, but Struensee capitalizes on the king’s love for theater and tells him he should think of it as playing the part of a reforming monarch. It works beautifully, but only for a time.
Unfortunately for Struensee, he loses track of the real world in his passion to remake Denmark as an Enlightenment stronghold. Though it is clear he is overreaching, the doctor doesn’t see it, which makes the story’s inevitable conclusion a sad cautionary tale.
The most interesting work in “A Royal Affair” comes from Folsgaard as the king. Under his undeniable madness, Christian VII turns out to be an intriguing character, a sweet and naive soul who wants to do the right thing but doesn’t know how. It’s a thoroughly unexpected performance and one that reminds us of how lonely being out of your mind can be. ‘A ROYAL AFFAIR’
H H H 1/2 I
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Trine Dyrholm, David Denick
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Running time: 2:18
Rated: R; sexual content, violent images. In Danish with English subtitles.