‘A Royal Affair’ opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, February 15th.
Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affære) (Denmark, 2012) feels like a familiar story, and, indeed, it is. The country is unique, and the characters have different names, but late 20th and early 21st century historians and storytellers tend to focus on the same elements, whether the story takes place in Denmark, England, Spain, France, Russia or China: humanity asserting itself against institution, emotion asserting itself against propriety, love and lust against duty and dynasty, privilege and power against commonweal. Its title seems to promise a bodice-ripping tale of steamy royal intrigue, but I found the film to be a well-measured chronicle of politics, philosophy and the machinations of power; the potentially scandalous sexual elements, when they finally appear, seem more like survivalist defense mechanisms agreed to by mutually passionate but reasonable people, rather than any kind of pressure-cooker indulgence to which they've been driven by fate or ardor.
Like Marie Antoinette and countless other ‘chosen’ women of royal lineage, Princess Caroline Matilda of Wales (Alicia Vikander) had known throughout her adolescence that she had been promised to her cousin, Christian Oldenburg, who became Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) upon his father’s death (Christian was 17 years old). Her marriage made her Queen Consort Caroline Matilde of Denmark in 1766; she was fifteen. Christian was smart and creative, but extraordinarily willful and indulgent; many historians believe he was at least bipolar, with a few supposing full-blown schizophrenia. But outside of these armchair diagnoses, it’s a fact that he was a big drinker, and wildly promiscuous. After Caroline delivered Christian’s son, Frederik, Christian dismissively embarked on a year-long tour of Europe, but his aberrant behaviors abroad led to the appointment of the German Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) as his personal physician. Struensee was, as we’re frequently reminded in the film, ‘a small-town doctor,’ but he had friends with ties to the Danish court, and he was one of the few people who actually got along with the bratty and petulant Christian.
Court life agreed with Struensee; he was good at reining in Christian’s excesses where the business of the state of Denmark was concerned, but shared Christian’s tastes for liquor in the front and poker in the rear. Struensee was also a well-disguised subversive, a promoter of the French Enlightenment ideals of Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot, and those influences slowly seeped into Christian’s dealings with his Court Council, the religious-conservative ruling body that really ran things in Denmark. Presided over by the Count Bernstorff (Bent Mejding) and the politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik), the Council continually rebuffed the King on issues like peasants’ rights and lifting censorship until, in a fit of rage, the King dissolved the Council, and named himself and Struensee the two-man ruling Regency of Denmark. Christian’s willful indulgence, however, didn’t extend to his marriage - Caroline Matilde had been all but abandoned by him. And if the pressures of constantly counseling the King behaviorally weren't enough, Struensee now held, literally, half of the ruling authority of the kingdom of Denmark. With both of their fates held in the whims of a near-madman, it was inevitable that Struensee and the whip-smart Caroline Matilde would eventually hook up.
Most noted for his writing work (he adapted The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for Swedish director Nils Arden Oplev), this is actually Nikolaj Arcel’s fourth directing effort. But he directs like a writer, spending so much time and effort on the specificity of consecutive events and particular characters that he can’t establish any kind of real dynamic to the overall story. The entire film moves at the same quietly insistent speed, essentially rhythmless; it’s admirably competent and clear, but gets monotonous until the denouement, when heads actually start getting chopped and children are torn from the arms of their mother. He’s well served by the veteran Danish cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk – the film is very good looking - and he does very well by his actors. Alicia Vikander has a presence and gravity well beyond her years, but her engaging turn as Caroline is diminished as the film labors forward, through no fault of her own. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard was still in theater school when he was cast here, but he brings real complexity and durable empathy to Christian throughout the film. International stardom will probably elude Mads Mikkelsen, despite Casino Royale, but he’ll be a dependable, bankable and immensely talented actor for years. And I’d be remiss in not pointing out the rock-solid supporting turn of Trine Dyrholm as the Queen Dowager Juliane Marie, Christian’s stepmother. Dyrholm is a wonderful actress who doesn't get out of Scandinavia much, but her work in The Celebration, Troubled Water, In A Better World and here will hopefully change that soon.
There’s a lot to like here; Academy Awards voters certainly liked it, putting Denmark’s Foreign Film submission into the top five nominees. And Vikander, Mikkelsen and Følsgaard certainly elevate the proceedings well above the usual Masterpiece-Theater-With-A-Bigger-Budget territory that a lot of these films tend to fall in to. But I honestly can’t give it more than a lukewarm recommendation. I don’t mean to discourage Nikolaj Arcel, but he still has a lot of directing chops to develop before he can enter the league he obviously aspires to. When he gets there, I’ll be as appreciative as anyone. But he’s not there yet.