A Royal Affair is a very pleasant surprise. With that title and belonging to the costume drama genre, originality seemed like an uphill battle. It doesn’t break convention with pop songs or anachronistic details like Marie Antoinette, but it isn’t a stodgy slog either. Working heavily in its favor is the emphasis on history and politics over the non-existent love triangle. There is a love story, but it isn’t the focus. In fact, the film could have benefitted from even less of it. This also isn’t a story you’ve heard before and that’s because it’s from Denmark. I’m sure natives and history buffs know it well, but for us public education types it’s new and fascinating.
Beginning in 1775 before flashing back to 1766, Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander) recounts the story of how she was bequeathed to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). It is the dawn of Enlightenment and she has heard her future husband is a forward thinker. She faces disillusionment when she discovers Christian to be an insensitive mad man. Later, by mere happenstance, the truly enlightened Dr. Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) charms the fool King and becomes his personal physician and only friend. They bond over Hamlet of all things. As you might guess, the good Doctor and the bitter queen fall for each other. But what happens after their tryst is not your typical betrayal yarn.
The director/co-screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel never makes Christian a villain. He is frustrating and baffling but not rotten. He clearly has some clinical malady, most likely schizophrenia. So the plot is less about him finding out about the affair, since he doesn’t care, and more about old ways versus new. Struensee’s influence leads to new progressive laws that upset the establishment while laying the groundwork for Denmark’s future. The affair is just a manifestation of romanticism facing harsh reality. It doesn’t help that their ideas are a generation too soon.
The approach is key. Everything is from the character’s perspective. The King’s plight is presented compassionately. The Queen can be selfish but in ways we can understand. Struensee has qualities that other films might portray as superhuman but Mads always let’s you see the furrow in his brow. This strips away the mystique and allows us to witness what life was like for these people.
Folsgaard is remarkable as the troubled king. He’s a colorful but tragic figure, and Folsgaard (making his feature debut) is constantly finding new layers to him. For some reason the queen is made the main character even though she is the least interesting. This also means the film is about 15 minutes too long because time is wasted setting up her thread. The doctor’s story is the extraordinary one and the film should have started with his astounding piece of history. It’s hard to believe it really happened. So come for the bodice ripping, and stay for the history of how Denmark (almost) became cool.