One of nominees for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, Nicolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair is a film that is considerably more than the average costume drama. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t trade in the beauty of period clothing, the sumptuousness of being “at court” or the candlelit (in movie terms of candlelight) beauty of its era. It does all these things, of course, and it does them all admirably. Plus, it hits all the right notes of court intrigue and the requisite amount of 18th century soap opera. But there’s more here than just that by virtue of both an unusual and interesting story and the tone of the film’s approach. Here, in fact, is a movie that has a close brush with greatness — missing it by scant inches and coming close enough to make the film essential viewing.
The film is based — apparently quite closely — on history. (I freely admit my knowledge of Danish history is…well, non-existent, so I’m taking a cursory bit of fact-checking at face value here.) It details the marriage of Britain’s Princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina) to Denmark’s King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) — one of those arranged affairs where neither party has ever seen the other. And much like Marlene Dietrich’s Catherine the Great in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934), Caroline quickly discovers that her new husband is not a great catch — being crude and indiscriminate in his sexual tastes, overzealous in his drinking and suffering from some never actually explained mental trouble. After submitting to Christian and providing him with an heir, she distances herself as much as possible from her husband.
Things take an interesting turn, however, when Christian meets a German doctor, Johann Frriedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelson). Christian takes a shine to this man — a progressive thinker who has anonymously authored several socialist pamphlets — in large part because the doctor has a knowledge of theater and can throw lines from plays back and forth with the king. Learning how to more or less deal with Christian, Struensee starts trying to use the king to put forward some progressive ideas — a few of which have some modern relevance (like asking the rich to pay heftier taxes). However, at the same time the doctor has the dubious judgment to fall in love with Caroline — and worse, to act on it. This is both the most conventional aspect of the film and one of its weak spots because the relationship between Struensee and Christian — which becomes much more complex than would at first seem likely — is much more compelling than the illicit affair.
The sociopolitical changes that Struensee and the king are making do not sit well with the powers that be or with the landed nobility (including Christian’s own mother), and it’s only a matter of time before things start to go sour for them. What happens is, up to a point, fairly predictable, but not in ways you might expect — and with an outcome that at first makes everything seem like a depressing essay in futility. This may be the only film I’ve ever seen where those explanatory titles at the end actually serve to alter — in a good way — the tone of the film and its point.
Beyond that, the film really does excel in its depiction of the three characters. One scene where Christian sits between Caroline and Struensee holding hands with both as they wait to see whether the young prince will survive an illness is stunning in its emotional impact. All three performers are strong, but the film really belongs to newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as Christian. He breathes life into the character so that Christian is horrifying and appalling one minute, disarmingly childlike the next, pathetically tragic after that and, finally, strangely noble. If only for his performance — and the depiction of the relationship between him and Struensee — the film would be worth seeing, but there’s more than that. Rated R for sexual content and some violent images.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14