What does the average non-Danish person know about Danish history? Aside from there having once been something rotten in the state of Denmark, and assuming we are not allowed to include the events of The Little Mermaid, the answer is quite possibly - well - nothing. But with A Royal Affair, the latest offering from Nikolaj Arcel (director of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), that ignorance can change, as we are introduced to a gripping chapter of the eighteenth century involving intrigue, betrayal, and forbidden love.
We open with a beautiful young woman (rising star Alicia Vikander) writing to her mysteriously absent son. In flashback we learn that she is Caroline Mathilde, a princess who was shipped off from England to Denmark as a teenager to marry the, at first glance, cold, obnoxious, and ever so slightly bonkers King Christian VII.
Mads Mikkelsen (whose rather wonderful face you may recognise from Casino Royale) plays Dr Johann Struensee, a man of the Enlightenment who is brought into court as a personal physician to the King. They bond over their shared knowledge of Hamlet quotations. (Perhaps had that scene lasted a little longer they could have sung Under the Sea together too.) Struensee uses his position to influence the King, not for his own gain but for the good of Denmark. In him the Queen sees a kindred spirit. They both love Voltaire and long to bring freedom and political liberalism to a country bound by the shackles of the court. And, naturally, they fall in love and things get complicated.
The story is structured around the Queen, but it is the two ambiguous men in her life who are the film’s real draw. The King is not a one-dimensional baddie or lunatic, but is simply a child in a King’s body. He has to be the centre of attention, gets angry when he does not get his own way, but in the end is just a pawn in the court’s game, being manipulated with ease. In Struensee he feels like he has found a friend, perhaps for the first time in his life. Likewise, Struensee is not a straightforward hero. As his power increases so do his levels of manipulation, and his liberal ideals are challenged when the freedoms he brings to the country begin to affect him personally. The battle between the Enlightenment ideas of social justice and mankind’s natural self-interest is fought on both a national and personal level.
Thoughtful and moving, it is depth of character that ultimately raises this film out of the darkness of your standard period romp. This is much more than a sumptuously shot history lesson.
Debbie Sims (DI Reviewer), 19/06/12
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