I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. Period pieces with a secret affair, a crazy king, political wheeling and dealing—plus the executioner’s block. This one actually covers some history of Denmark, and was directed by the Dane Nikolaj Arcel. It was also nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, ultimately losing to Austria’s French-language “Amour” from Michael Haneke. “A Royal Affair” can’t really compare in quality to the superb eventual winner, but it’s still pretty damn good. And it stars the marvelous Mads Mikkelson as the object of Queen Caroline Mathilde’s(a beautiful, if somewhat bland, Alicia Vikander)desire, Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. You should see the ending of this one coming from a mile away, but it’s still quite compelling. Oh, and Danish actor Mikkel Folsgaard gives one of 2012’s great performances as the mad king Christian VII. Mikkel won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival—and he’s a wonderful manic counterpart to the laid-back Mikkelson.
Fifteen year-old Caroline Mathilde of Great Britain(Ms. Vikander)arrives in 18th century Denmark for an arranged marriage to her cousin Christian VII(Mr. Folsgaard). It’s doomed from the start. She appears to have a great fondness for art and literature, while the king is wild, unpredictable—and often outright bat shit crazy. His behavior is increasingly erratic throughout the film as he flies into rages and cavorts with prostitutes. Enter German physician Johann Struensee(Mr. Mikkelson), who is brought in to “handle” Christian, and almost immediately becomes a trusted confidante and calming presence. The heat between the educated Johann and Caroline is almost immediate as they exchange glances and books, and eventually share both a ballroom dance—and then the queen’s bedroom chambers. Also, Struensee proves to be a champion of the Enlightenment, and deftly uses his influence over the king to promote sweeping change throughout Denmark that lifts certain church-imposed censorships and improves life amongst the masses. But then suddenly a suspicious pregnancy promises to unravel it all.
The pageantry is ample in “A Royal Affair”, but the intellectual bent quickly becomes the main focus of the piece. There’s a nice bit early on between doctor and king involving dueling Shakespeare quotations which serves to cement their friendship. The principals complement each other quite well, but even though he’s blessed with the showiest role, it’s difficult to ignore that young Mr. Folsgaard is the standout. He fire-breathes life into the film whenever the proceedings begin to become too staid, and he expertly walks the tightrope of villainy and sympathy. Mr. Mikkelson possesses a slow-burn intensity that powered 2010’s visceral “Valhalla Rising”, and is equally effective in a much less physical way here. I’ll also offer a spoiler alert before I say—these stories never wind up anything less than tragic. “A Royal Affair” is intriguing throughout, and a rich history lesson as well. Grade: B+