With cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek, costumes by Manon Rasmussen and production design by Neils Sejer, the new Danish film A Royal Affair is a sensual series of scenes that makes you feel as if you’re turning the pages of a coffee table book or strolling through an art museum featuring an exhibition of Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a feast for the senses. The story itself, though never boring and even fun in a Masterpiece Theater soap opera type of way at times, is a bit more wibbly wobbly.
It takes place during the Enlightenment in Denmark, apparently the only European country at the time not to have had its cherry popped by that intellectual movement (and just to get it out of the way, yes, there’s something rotten here, okay?). The Danish king, Christian VII, is not quite all there in the head and is merely a puppet of an aristocracy that treats the rabble as, well, rabble, if not worse (though the movie plays a little fast and lose with exactly how crazy he is). He takes as his wife Caroline Matilda, an English princess with Enlightenment tendencies (who tells the story in flashback form through a series of somewhat clunky voice overs—she’s this witness person to the events, see, even events she never ever witnessed). Her Enlightenment tendencies even extend to the boudoir, when, after a truly awful wedding night (to put it politely), Caroline refuses to have sex with Christian again. And all that’s just the background.
The real story begins when Rantzau, a member of the aristocracy who has been exiled from the King’s inner circle, tries to get back into Christian’s good graces by suggesting a common doctor, Johan Struensee, become the King’s private physician, which Struensee does by playing a round of Shakespearian trivial pursuit with Christian (it makes sense if you see it). Struensee is a secret member of the Enlightenment (his alter ego is “anonymous”) and with the help of Rantzau and Caroline, plans to bring Denmark kicking and screaming into the 18th century (there are also plenty of parallels to issues facing America today if that’s your thing). Problems arise when Struensee starts sleeping with Caroline (don’t you hate when that happens?).
As was said, the story is always interesting. But at the same time, I don’t think it quite works on its own terms. The screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, who also directed (and a far cry from his international hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, one might safely say) try to sell Struensee’s story as a tragedy on the level of Shakespeare and Sophocles, if not Sir Thomas Mallory (who is referenced with a not so subtle lack of subtlety). According to Heisterberg and Arcel, Struensee’s downfall, his fatal flaw, was his passion and true love for Caroline (with the irony being that a man of Enlightenment ultimately couldn’t control his…reason).
Sorry, but I’m not convinced. Part of my credulity arises from a feeling that it wasn’t always passion that was driving Struensee, but an inability to control his own cock (yeah, I said it, what are you going to do about it), a situation men often like to think is the same thing, when it’s more often than not, not. And more to the point, there is plenty to suggest here that Struensee’s real flaw was not the tragic one of forbidden love, but the more down to earth failings of just not being smart enough to run the country; that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; and that there are limits as to how far Enlightenment ideas could actually solve the problems of the 18th century. In actuality, I suggest it was a far more complex situation than simply who was fucking who. Because of this, a strong beginning tends to lose some of its emotional tension in the second half as it becomes a somewhat routine doomed love story.
But A Royal Affair does have one thing going for it and that is its lead Mikkelson in the role of Struensee. I have to be honest; I can’t get enough of my Mads. An improbable leading man with a face of impossibly high cheek bones and a visage that looks like he was the loser in a boxing match, he commands the screen, and there is little point in fighting it. And there is heat between his doctor and Queen Caroline. So A Royal Affair may not be perfect, but it has its moments, especially when its leading man is on the screen.