A Royal Affair recounts the real life events of a corrupt government in 18th century Denmark during a time of massive reform that sought to bring the country up to speed with the rest of Europe. It was given a boost, in part, by a radical German physician named Johann Struensee, who had major ideas about how to change a country that wasn’t even his. A Royal Affair tells of his clandestine partnership with Denmark’s queen, Caroline Mathilde, a partnership that tore the government apart and then gave it a new birth.
Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is a freethinker, a man who doesn’t believe in God but in good ethics and equality among the peoples. He becomes the Danish king’s personal physician and slowly uses his position to infiltrate the heart of the government — with good intentions but with poor execution. The king, Christian VII, is played by an eccentric Mikkel Folsgaard who slips perfectly into the role of a mentally ill, boyish monarch who is more concerned about having affairs of his own than being king (even though he keeps repeating “I am king!” whenever he feels threatened). The two form a strong bond, but while Christian sees Johann as a mentor and a confidant, it’s never really clear how Johann sees Christian. Is he a true friend, or merely a tool?
But the person who drives everything forward is the queen, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Christian has two strands of emotion: hysterical anger and childish glee; Johann is pasted with a perpetual look of apprehension; but Caroline is the one who travels through a sea of ups and downs as she tries to cope with both the noble life as well as her own, and it’s a lot to take on for a 23 year old. She has to deal with a poor marriage and an unruly husband (who has sex with other women right under her nose), the welfare of her country, the upbringing of her children, the adultery with Johann, as well as the subsequent consequences of said adultery, and Vikander handles it all masterfully.
What strikes me about A Royal Affair, apart from some stellar performances and its massive scale, is its very subtle yet immediate critique on organised religion. Sure, the Danes back then did truly believe in placing the fate of their nation in the hands of God, but this film almost mocks the idea by having the freethinking radical Johann appear as a saviour to a group of Christian politicians that ultimately come off looking like villains. Ideas like orphanages, widespread education, and the freedom of speech seem to be almost taboo in the eyes of the Christians, but these are things that should be available to everyone, isn’t it? Johann’s (and Caroline’s) push for social reform ends up coming at an immense price, and even his puppet Christian VII doesn’t hold his own against the Court.
He dissolves into nothing more than a figurehead, appearing at Court meetings to simply put his signature onto documents that he doesn’t comprehend. The politicians who work under him dismiss his infantile ways, so much so that the only confidence he gets is from talking to Johann. He’s both a frustrating as well as an endearing character, and as the movie progresses, our sympathy for him grows.
Director Nikolaj Arcel handles the movie confidently and without hesitation. His costumes and locations are divine, and most effective in submerging us into this historical realm where a few people, locked up in a royal palace, fought it out — both in the Court room and in bed — to see who would win the heart of a crumbling nation.
Best Moment | I remember feeling joy when Christian VII stands up to the Court and fires some of its key members. It is an empowering moment even if the triumph it delivers would only be short-lived.
Worst Moment | There’s a scene where Johann takes Caroline horseback riding. While it’s a touching gesture, the obviousness of the green screen and false staging is a bit too startling to ignore.