A Royal Affair is a beautifully mounted historical drama which goes right where so many films of this type go wrong: it doesn’t get distracted by carriages and candlelight and pretty frocks and balls and sumptuous feasts, but keeps its eye firmly and surely on character and story and, my, what a fascinating story it is. Set in late-18th-century Denmark, it is the account of a love triangle between a German doctor, the Queen of Denmark and her imbecilic husband, the King, which sounds preposterous, but is actually based on a true event that not only led to scandal but also ultimately transformed the country.
Although, at times, this is rather coolly aloof in tone, the cast is knock-out, and it is so excellently and expertly done, I’m pretty sure it will float your boat, although my advice? Don’t float for more than four hours without a toilet break or you could come down with a bladder infection. Like syphilis, this is not something that only affects royals.
Raised in England, Caroline Mathilde (played by rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander), daughter of the Prince of Wales, is dispatched at 15 to Denmark to marry her cousin, King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Caroline is hopeful of this union. She has heard Christian is handsome, and interested in art and literature. But when she arrives in Copenhagen she discovers a nincompoop of unsound mind given to prancing and shrieking and giggling randomly. (Folsgaard makes this part his own, but I was also minded of Tom Hulce’s Amadeus.) Still, she does her royal duty, and produces a male heir, but then slams the door to her bedroom chamber shut. Bored, and seeking amusement, Christian disappears to Europe, returning a year later with a new personal physician, Johann Struensee (a superbly compelling Mads Mikkelsen). Struensee has won the King’s trust sufficiently to diffuse his moody, irrational and sometimes violent outbursts while the King looks upon him as some kind of beloved playmate.
However, Struensee, who has worked in community hospitals and is not of nobility, identifies with the radical principles of the Enlightenment; the new mood sweeping Europe which seeks to overturn social injustice and withdraw powers from the privileged in favour of the poor. Finding Caroline is, surprisingly, sympathetic to his views — she has read Rousseau and Voltaire; she was shocked when she stumbled across the body of a peasant, tortured to death by his master for some misdemeanour — the two are drawn together romantically (very sexy; proper chemistry) as well as politically. Shrewdly using their influence, the two persuade the King to enact revolutionary social reforms: inoculations against smallpox for the entire population; the abolishment of torture and censorship; education for all. However, such innovations earn the pair powerful enemies among the nobility, Church and military, and do nothing to endear them to Christian’s icy, scheming stepmother, the Queen Dowager (Trine Dyrholm), who will settle for nothing less than the couple’s complete ruination.
Written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg (who collaborated on the first and best adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and directed by Arcel, this does not break new ground, but does know exactly what ground it is on, and how to tell a story through each character’s eyes while awarding them proper reasons for doing what they do, without relying on vast tracts of exposition. And the characters aren’t black and white, but richly conflicted. Struensee becomes fond of the King, and never meant to betray him — although the betrayal is for the greater good, it is a betrayal all the same — or further infantilise him. From Folsgaard’s poignant performance, you are never quite sure if the King knows he is being manipulated, or whether he even minds. As for Alicia Vikander, she is as ravishing as she is luminous, which is a hard thing to pull off. (Most mornings I have to decide: shall I be ravishing OR luminous today; both is remarkably tiring.)
But the main thing you need to know is this: it is enthralling right through to the final act. I did not fidget, yawn, sigh, doze or plan a week’s meals in my head. It’ll float your boat, which is always good, so long as you remember those toilet breaks.