Based on sensational 18th-century events, A Royal Affair tells the juicy tale of beautiful 15-year-old Caroline Matilda, who travels to the royal Danish court to meet her new husband King Christian VII and begin her reign as queen. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) turns out to be a tittering nincompoop whose incompetence as a ruler is rivaled only by his emotional fragility and petty petulance. Several magnitudes more sophisticated than the king, Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander) is an avid reader with a passion for Enlightenment-inspired populist political tracts, Voltaire, and Rousseau, but she is nonetheless stifled in an age when women lacked power. Stripped of her “dangerous books,” she retreats into motherhood and the insular monotony of court life.
Enter the dashing Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a German freethinker, committed rationalist and closet populist pamphleteer engaged as King Christian’s personal physician (think Javier Bardem meets Tony Robbins meets Thomas Paine). Using elementary (yet magically effective) reverse-psychology, Struensee improves the King’s mental condition—so much so that he asks the doctor to help cheer up his wife as well. But the dynamics of that promising relationship are altered when—several billets-doux in—Struensee and the fetching teen Queen begin trysting in secret.
As the pantaloons fly, the oblivious King, invigorated by his newly cheery wife and his trusted physician-cum-advisor’s decision to include him in political discussions, sets out to implement a slate of Enlightenment-inspired reforms which threaten to compromise the quasi-feudal system on which the nobility depend for their income. Quivering lips meet hard truths, though, when pernicious court tongues begin to wag.
Commendably lensed, A Royal Affair will hit the spot for those in the market for romance and royal intrigue set into an opulent historical drama. The cinematography’s lush palette, which glides between suggestive aquarelle and plummy photorealist, adds to A Royal Affair’s dramatic pull and breathy visuals. Costume and set design details are attended to with precision but no fuss, from the ubiquitous wigs and corsets to the palace’s intricate wooden furniture.
A Royal Affair is a deeply romantic movie—both in terms of its erotic and political content—that engages the forces of the sweeping sails of history. Screenwriter and director Nikolaj Arcel has judiciously arranged its savvy tugs on the heartstrings while providing a satisfying escape to 18th-century Denmark. The full details of Queen Caroline’s story are even richer than the film lets on—for example, she began dressing as a man as her influence at court grew in conjunction with her affair. Arcel’s streamlined version is effective but perhaps dilutes its source.
But Mikkelsen (who most recently won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for his role in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt) steals the show as Struensee. His face is capable of communicating impassiveness, inscrutable intelligence, and deep-seated, appealing aggression all at once. Despite a plodding start and a surfeit of exposition, A Royal Affair serves as a fine demonstration of Mikkelsen’s captivating on-screen presence and a resounding affirmation of his talents and poise.