A Royal Affair: Sex scandal, Danish style

Based on a real-life royal scandal from 18th-century Denmark, this Oscar-nominated drama has all the doomed romance and sweet set design for your period-piece needs, abetted by a great cast.

Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (of the original Swedish Millenium TV series), foreign film Oscar nominee A Royal Affair chronicles the sensational real-life events that took place in 18th-century Denmark following the marriage of 15-year-old Caroline Mathilde, Princess of Wales (Alicia Vikander) to 17-year-old tittering ninny King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard).

Caroline, now Queen of Denmark, goes into the marriage thinking that she is to be wedded to a sophisticated young king, but she is quickly disabused when Christian’s childlike aggressive behaviour becomes apparent. An avid reader, Caroline is stripped of her “dangerous” books as soon as she enters Denmark, and she becomes growingly bored and depressed by her new husband and her new way of life.

Following his marriage to Caroline, Christian falls into excess. He is now thought to have been schizophrenic, but his mental illness was never diagnosed. His incapacity as a ruler is rivalled only by his maddening obsession with prostitutes. Thus, the court decides to hire a personal physician from Germany, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), to attend to the king and cure his mental turmoil. Little do they know that Struensee is a man of the Enlightenment who has anonymously published writings on the freedom of mankind, and who reads Rousseau and Voltaire when he’s not being watched.

Christian and Struensee develop an immediate bond, a sort of bromance, and they soon start going to brothels together. Their friendship proves healthy for the king, whose aggressive outbursts almost disappear, but whose childlike fragility remains. When Struensee is asked to attend to the Queen, the two discover that they can use Christian to pass reforms in Denmark, such as the abolition of corporeal punishment and the lifting of censorship. In a way, Struensee and Caroline manipulate the King in order to make Denmark a landmark of the Enlightenment. Inevitably, a love affair between Struensee and Caroline ensues, as well as a coup d’état and some beheadings.

A Royal Affair is photographed in an opulent cinematographic palette, which goes from light pastels in the beginning, as if to suggest the innocence of the Queen as well as the beauty of her Enlightenment ideas, to dark plummy tones when the sex scandal becomes the centre of attention, effacing all memory of the positive reforms in Denmark that Struensee and Caroline initiated. The costumes and set designs are done with precision, but without drawing too much attention.

In terms of casting, Mikkelsen, whom we recognize as an actor with a taste for playing villains, shines as the dashing Struensee (think Viggo Mortensen with a touch of Javier Bardem). Mikkelsen, who this year won the Best Actor award at Cannes for The Hunt, possesses what can be best described as an actor’s face, one that moulds itself with ease in order to express deep intelligence, aggression and remorse all at once. As Caroline, newcomer Vikander (Anna Karenina) gives a strong leading performance. But the character of Christian VII is the most interesting, and Folsgaard gives an empathic portrayal of the nincompoop king. The movie focuses perhaps too much on the relationship between Struensee and Caroline, and I wish it focused more on the characters themselves. Nevertheless, A Royal Affair is a satisfactory romantic escape. ■


A Royal Affair opens Friday, Jan. 25

Radina Papukchieva blogs at The Café Phenomenon. @Papukchieva on Twitter.

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