Beginning around 1766 and spanning over several years, A Royal Affair is from the perspective of Caroline Mathilde (played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander) who marries the psychologically unhinged King of Denmark Christian VII (magnificently portrayed by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). The beautiful young woman abides by her duties as Queen, giving the King a son, but Christian’s jealousy of Caroline’s talent immediately puts a barrier between them and they spend little time together. A local doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), is employed to accompany the King on a year-long tour around Europe. During this trip Struensee gains the trust of the King and upon their return becomes a regular fixture at the royal quarters, influencing the vulnerable Christian’s decisions and soon establishing a position of authority and power. At the same time he falls in love with the Queen and Struensee and Caroline embark on a passionate secret affair. The two are extremely interested in the ideas of Enlightenment and are soon using their power to change Denmark. But the aristocracy are not pleased with these changes, feeling that their wealth and power is threatened, and soon they are finding ways to bring down the doctor.
Based on actual historical events, the film makes the story extremely accessible and considering I know absolutely nothing about this era, I was riveted from beginning to end. Part tragic love story and part historical political thriller, A Royal Affair successfully amalgamates the genres and is a surprisingly gripping film. Considering its relatively long runtime of over two hours, it never dragged and the characters were likeable and interesting. Caroline is an intelligent woman who naively gets trapped in a disastrous marriage, the audience seeing things from her perspective and immediately siding with her, allowing the following affair to be gripping. Følsgaard brilliantly adds a maniacal laugh to the character of Christian instantly establishing the psychological state of the character, but he also shows an extreme vulnerability which is in both the script and the performance that makes the character fascinating. Mikkelsen is equally great as the doctor who brings about change, his interesting face depicting a fascinating mixture of brooding haughtiness and dedicated passion to both his cause and the woman he falls in love with.
Both Caroline and Stuensee seem to genuinely care for Christian, at one point the three talk excitedly about the changes they can bring about. It is the complexity and likeability of the characters that really hold this film together but the film is also carefully crafted and the story flows beautifully carrying us along with it for the ride. It is easy to become completely absorbed in this lavish historical world. But don’t expect anything out of the ordinary, this is a conventional story told in a conventional manner, however, it is thoroughly enjoyable. There are a few genuinely amusing moments that prevent this film from becoming too serious and boring and the uncertainty of characters and actions allows the film to remain compelling throughout.
A Royal Affair never becomes too focused on the politics but also doesn’t dumb things down for the audience, most of the details being humanised by the three main characters. The political conflicts at the centre of the story paralleled with the love conflicts can be poetically interpreted and adds a particular depth to the film. In a sea of often difficult and pretentious films this one stands out for its appealing clarity and strong storytelling with marvellous central performances.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Writers: Bodil Steensen-Leth (novel “Prinsesse af blodet”), Rasmus Heisterberg (screenplay) and Nikolaj Arcel (screenplay)
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, David Dencik and Alicia Vikander
Runtime: 130 mins
Country: Denmark, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany