A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair

Original title or aka: En kongelig affære

Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Alicia Vikander, David Dencik, Trine Dyrholm, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, William Johnk Nielsen, Cyron Bjorn Melville, Laura Bro
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 138 mins. Reviewed in Jun 2012
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Rating notes: Mature themes, violence and sex scenes

An interesting costume drama where sets and costumes have not been stinted. It certainly looks the part.

The setting is Denmark in the 1760s and 1770s, a valuable story for Danish history and a story not too familiar for other audiences. The opening alerts the audience to the Enlightenment and how it flourished in this century, a return to reason instead of faith (and superstition), a dream of equality and dignity for all, an ideal of freedom for society. The French Revolution was just over a decade away as the film ends.

This is also the story of Princess Caroline Matilda of England, bound to an arranged marriage to Christian VII of Denmark. A young, beautiful and cultured woman, she leaves with high hopes. They are soon dashed. The king is mentally unstable, skittish in public manners and profligate in behaviour.

The film does begin by letting the audience know that Caroline sealed her fate and exile by an affair with Dr Johann Struensee. She is writing to her children to explain what she has done.

Dr Struensee (Mads Mikkelson, like a passive Jack Palance) is an Enlightenment thinker and writer (anonymously). Friends suggest he become physician to Christian who is on a year’s tour of Europe. The two click (helped by a love of quotations from Shakespeare) and Johann is able to guide the king to better behaviour. He becomes chief adviser, despite hostility from the nobility and the Council, eventually replacing the Council, and pushing through all kinds of enlightened and progressive legislation, from inoculation against smallpox, to the abolition of censorship and capital punishment. For a while, Denmark set a model for the rest of Europe.

Someone quotes how Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere destroyed Camelot. It is apt, of course, when Johann and the queen (initially hostile but impressed by his ideas and manner) begin a liaison. A jealous Dowager queen and conservative nobles are able to arrest John and banish the queen. They also restore the kingdom to the status quo.

The film offers enough to reflect on with insights into this experience of royalty and Enlightenment. Character performances are strong. This seems a story of folly and failure, a postscript adds that Caroline’s son, Frederick, staged a coup when he was sixteen and began a fifty five year reign that saw the implementation of so many of the Enlightenment ideas.

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