A few liberal American critics have argued that the lessons of “A Royal Affair,” which chronicles Enlightenment thinking’s triumph over the religion-abusing aristocracy of 18th Century Denmark, apply to today’s domestic political sphere, as far-right officials and pundits like Michele Bachmann and Sean Hannity use the country’s Judeo-Christian tradition to justify what the left views as a draconian social agenda. While this is a ludicrous, apples-to-oranges comparison, it is more a reflection of the film than the critics themselves. When an historical drama enters the marketplace, it usually parallels the current moment in some way–for instance, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is being released just after a Presidential election in which an African-American candidate won–but “A Royal Affair” boasts no such relevance, creating a need for some critics to invent it. (That is, unless there is something happening in the film’s native Denmark that the rest of the world is largely unaware of — a possibility, but a quick Google search reveals nothing of the sort.) Thus, the movie can’t help but feel as though it lacks cultural significance by design, existing for no other reason than that its makers–most notably the atheist producer Lars von Trier–are very fond of this particular story.
But what the film lacks in urgency it largely makes up for in dramatic intrigue; even those who aren’t particularly interested in Enlightenment-era Europe will recognize why the filmmakers fancy the tale. It begins as Dr. Johan Struensee (a commanding Mads Mikkelsen), a German, is hired serve as the personal physician for Denmark’s King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a mentally unstable teenager who at first left all policymaking up to the country’s corrupt elites. Struensee, a progressive minded reader of Voltaire and Rosseau, realized that he could manipulate the King to rule in a more social welfare-focused way — that which would mark the beginning of the Danish Enlightenment. The physician-turned-reformer’s affair with Queen Caroline (the beautiful up-and-comer Alicia Vikander) played no small part in this ability, as she was eager to support Struensee by encouraging Christian to take active control of his government. Needless to say, the aristocrats unhappy with their power being seized were prepared to retaliate, making Struensee’s quest for top-down change a perilous undertaking.
What’s most appreciable about the production is that it never becomes a soap opera, despite the alluring, theatrical nature of the material (a possibly schizophrenic king! an illicit affair! corrupt government officials!). While co-writer/director Nikolaj Arcel may romanticize Struensee to some degree, “A Royal Affair” always comes across as a credible depiction of history, a style that ultimately strengthens the film’s dramatic punch because it avoids cheapness. The achievement is a testament to both Arcel’s elegant and restrained craftsmanship, which is marred only by its awkward use of Queen Caroline as the film’s emotional POV figure even though she is not immediately present for much of the duration, and the cast’s uniformly excellent performances. In addition to Mikkelsen’s firm tour de force as the determined puppeteer of a reformer, Følsgaard believably embodies the nutty-cuckoo-ness of the King and Vikander provides a human take on an outsider (Queen Caroline was British) thrust into a whirlwind of sociopolitical change. Even though “A Royal Affair” may not have a lot to say about today’s world, it’s a grippingly told and performed look into a past one that is rarely examined by non-historians.