Caroline is young and beautiful, fiercely intelligent, but naïve and romantic. She couldn’t have known when she was told she was to marry a Danish king – apparently intelligent, handsome, interested in art and literature – just the amount of pain her new life would bring her. The shock of disillusionment, at first endearingly awkward, quickly becomes harrowingly painful, reaching the first of its climaxes on their wedding night and from there becoming a festering wound, one of monotony, boredom and inward suffering.
Her husband is repugnantly childish, selfish and uncaring, and she is trapped in a gilded cage, her own ornate hell. Events which I won’t explain later bring the charismatic Doctor Struensee on to the scene, and thus begins a dangerous ménage-a-trois.
The outlines of the story itself are nothing new, and this is not what viewers will find so highly impressive about the new Danish film, A Royal Affair. It is the storytelling itself – so utterly compelling, as entertaining as it is deep, blending intelligent dialogue with some breathtaking cinematography (as would be expected of a historical period drama of this kind) – that is so captivating: a dance between Caroline and the doctor at a ball, and a longing gaze betraying the first overwhelming, revelatory moment of their love – both urgent and terrifying, is astonishing, and the film’s climax is equally beautiful in its cinematography.
Sitting comfortably alongside the central romantic plot is enough moral complexity and political drama to keep the most avid fan of historical cinema satiated. There truly is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and the atmosphere of corruption, injustice and betrayal pervades the entire film. A Royal Affair is particularly effective in its exposal of a cruel, selfish and manipulative social structure; playing against the backdrop of the increasing tensions caused by the spread of the enlightenment throughout Europe, the political scene could not be more dangerous and tense. It is into this world that we find a mentally ill king that should be pitied instead of detested; he is a puppet, a signer of papers, to be treated as a child and kept in the mentality he resides in because it is more convenient that way for the power seekers. It is a moral trap that is dangerously easy to fall into, and this film is particularly insightful in the way it explores this distasteful side of human nature.
Mads Mikkelsen (sadly known mostly to Western audiences as the Bond villain in Casino Royale) as Struensee, Alicia Vikander as Caroline and Mikkel Følsgaard as the king are all exceptional in their roles; Følsgaard in particular is a marvel in the way he portrays his character, at times repulsively childish but incredibly impressionable and vulnerable, in need of help. His performance has justly earned the awards it has garnered.
I know little about the historical background to the story itself, so cannot comment on the accuracy of the film in its portrayal of historical events. In any case, I’m very much of the mind that it doesn’t matter, as long as the themes raised are dealt with in sufficient depth and the film itself is interesting and compelling. A Royal Affair goes beyond just that, though: it is a highly intelligent and moving drama, paying homage to the great historical and romantic melodramas of the past while working on its own merits as a sumptuous near-classic. I enjoyed this movie greatly, and highly recommend seeing it at the cinema, while you still can.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (June ’12)