In Eighteenth Century Denmark a new Queen (Alicia Vikander) arrives from her native England to meet her new King, Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard) for the first time. The King instantly fails to live up to his reputation and the Queen is shunned by him and infuriated by his temperament and apparent madness. What’s worse is that Denmark’s outdated censorship bans many of her favourite Enlightenment era books which are returned to England. In a small Danish colony in Germany, two ex Court favourites persuade a local Doctor to apply to be the King’s physician in the hope that they will once again gain favour with the Court. The Doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) is an instant hit with the King but with few others. The Queen slowly learns of their like-mindedness and they begin a slow seizure of power from the lame duck Monarch as well as embarking on a risky sexual affair.
It always annoys me when I miss a critically successful overseas film at the cinema but I simply couldn’t find anywhere showing A Royal Affair on its theatrical release. The film has since been Oscar Nominated and just the other day won a couple of converted Kermode Awards so I was thrilled when my online DVD rental service sent me the film. A Royal Affair is pretty much all I was expecting of it. It’s a lavish and pretty costume drama with a political heart and save for a run time I would happily shorten, I really enjoyed it.
Denmark and the entire Scandinavian region is one of the most progressive and liberal areas of the world. I believe the film is important to Denmark as it shows the country at a time when it lagged behind the rest of Europe and as one character states, was stuck in the Middle Ages, ruled by faith and superstition. This film is a mostly true account of a major upheaval in Danish society and something which was happening all over Europe around the same time. I found it really interesting to hear nobility discussing Voltaire, peasant’s rights and atheism. It goes a little further than the traditional frocks and scandal themes of a normal costume drama. The movie focuses on two outsiders, the English Queen and German Doctor. Their life outside Denmark, which has become set in its ways, has opened their eyes to injustices and makes them want to change things.
The remarkable rise of the King’s Doctor from small town Physician to Court Doctor to King’s aid, to King’s advisor to pretty much King, is a fascinating story and the audiences sympathies change as he progresses. Early on I really liked Doctor Struensee but as he became more powerful and as the power corrupted him, my thoughts on him changed. It was interesting to see him in the early stages, battling for free press and a law that allowed anyone to publish but once the publications turned on him he was happy to reinstate censorship. This manipulation of the King also changed from wanting to make a difference to wanting to size power. This silent coup takes place alongside a relationship between himself and the young Queen who hates her husband and surroundings and views the Doctor as an idealist, just like her. He is also one of the few people at Court who she has anything in common with. Behind the central story there is much posturing and political negotiation amongst people who formally had power and who want it back. I found all of this really interesting.
The production design is excellent and the palaces and gardens look exactly as you’d expect. The costumes are also very good and the direction and cinematography are a little less static than you’d expect from an Eighteenth Century costume drama. A handheld camera makes you feel as though you are part of the story and in the room rather than viewing the plot from behind the red rope of your tour. The acting, along with the script, is where the film really excels. Mads Mikkelsen is fantastic as the idealistic and liberal Doctor. He has a huge screen presence and wonderful face which conveys emotion while barely moving. He judges the smarminess of the role well and balances it with charm which he uses to charm the Court and Queen. Alicia Vikander is excellent, playing the role of the Queen in her second or third language. Having seen her in Anna Karenina last year (in which she was also great), I assumed she was English but during a recent interview I discovered she is Swedish. She is simply fantastic as the young, bored, idealistic (and sexy) Queen. She and Mikkelsen are both superb together. I also liked the portrayal of the possibly mad King by Mikkel Følsgaard.
A Royal Affair left me wanting to know more about the story and the characters and I left the film heading for Wikipedia to discover more about the time and people. I don’t see this as a criticism as the film created a desire for more knowledge but still gave me a fantastic story full of politics and scandal and the political aspects especially are close to my heart. I’m always happy to see anyone denounce religion. Overall I really enjoyed A Royal Affair and was rarely if ever bored with it. My emotions changed constantly during the two hours and twenty minutes and the ending was terrific. Mikkelson is great as usual and Vikander is a name to look out for in the coming years.
Vikander spoke no Danish before auditioning and learned her lines by asking a friend's mother to record them on her phone from which she could memorize them.
The 1935 film The Dictator focusses on the same events.
A Royal Affair is Denmark's ninth film to be Oscar nominated. It has won three times before.