Though lovely to watch, this Danish historical drama starring Mads Mikkelson, Alicia Vikander and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard is measured and considered to a fault.
Historical drama A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) is based on events well-known to Danish school children but rarely heard of outside Denmark. It covers a fascinating period of Danish history during the Enlightenment, when new ideas were spreading across Europe and challenging the established power structures of the time. In 1766, an English princess, Caroline Mathilde, an intelligent and educated young woman, is sent to Denmark to take her place as the queen of King Christian VII who, unbeknownst to her, is emotionally unstable. A remarkable German doctor, Johann Struensee, rises in society to become the King’s personal physician and confidant and ultimately comes to dominate him, using his position and power over the King to effect changes in society from on high. Struensee and the Queen embark on a passionate affair after they bond over their shared ideals, ideas seen as radical and threatening at the time.
For writer/director Nikolaj Arcell (who co-wrote the screenplay for the first of the famous Stieg Larsson trilogy) A Royal Affair is a dream project. Arcell had long wanted to see this piece of Danish history on screen; although the story has been told on stage, in ballet and opera, curiously it had never been made into a film.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelson is familiar to western audiences from films such as Casino Royale and King Arthur, and is as strong as ever in the role of Struensee. The two newcomers are hugely impressive. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (shortly to be seen with Keira Knightly in Anna Karenina) had to master Danish for the part of Caroline. She has an extraordinary sensitivity of expression, and she and Mikkelson exude a convincing chemistry as lovers.
The standout performance, however, is Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, who in his first feature role does a wonderful turn as mad king Christian VII. His character is complex and vulnerable and the film beautifully portrays the dynamics of his relationship with Struensee.
Perhaps it’s the length but despite the extraordinary drama inherent in this true story, A Royal Affair doesn’t leave you breathless. Impressed and informed, yes, but weirdly unmoved. The narrative is built around a letter from the exiled Caroline to her children, suggesting that’s it’s her story, but the rest of the film slides between the other characters’ perspectives and an omniscient point of view. It might have been more powerful if we’d experienced events all through Caroline’s eyes; and while the film can’t be faulted where production values and performances are concerned, but the whole somehow lacks spine. Perhaps it’s the conventional approach the direction and cinematography take or the evenness of the scenes; either way, A Royal Affair is lovely to watch but measured and considered to a fault.
DVD special features include interviews with actors Mads Mikkelson and Alicia Vikander and writer/director Nikolaj Arcel; a family tree, illustrating the links between the Danish and British royal families; and the theatrical trailer.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære)
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Denmark, 2011, 137 mins
Available on DVD and Blu-ray