In Europe at the end of the 18th century, religious oppressors dominate the land. However change is in the air and those radical enough to think differently are suddenly being heard; it's the age of Enlightenment. A young English queen named Caroline (Alicia Vikander) is to be wed to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) of Denmark, but the Danish censorship laws crack down on the queen as soon as she arrives. Christian's childish behavior, his persistent use of alcohol, and particular liking of promiscuous women results in Caroline being absolutely miserable.
After Caroline gives birth to Christian's son, Christian goes on a tour of Germany and is thought to have lost his mind. The Court orders him to find a personal physician which he finds in Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Christian becomes extremely fond of Johann, which results in Christian being completely blind to the love affair that blossoms between his best friend and his wife. Johann and Caroline start a revolution while being the brains behind the King, but their ideas soon become a thorn in the side of the Court and extreme actions must be utilized.
It's fascinating how the beginning and even a brief section in the middle of "A Royal Affair" wraps around and connects to the ending of the film. Jumping around in time isn't exactly groundbreaking in the land of cinema, but it's satisfying to see it done well even with so much going on in between each segment. The historical drama begins in England in 1766, proceeds to Altona in 1768, jumps to Copenhagen in 1769, glosses over events that occur in 1773, and ends in Denmark in 1783. "A Royal Affair" mostly focuses on the transition of Caroline moving from England to Denmark while most of the film is stationed in Denmark with a few detours to Copenhagen for Johann along the way.
The performances of "A Royal Affair" are fairly robust. The weakest is perhaps Alicia Vikander who is rather bland until she portrays sorrow and then she is absolutely crippling. Mikkel Folsgaard does an incredible job handling Christian's eccentricity. Christian is extremely childish, mentally unstable, and really only has the desire to play and have fun at all times. He has a particular flair for showmanship and hates having somebody else steal his thunder. His violent episodes are his most memorable scenes. Mads Mikkelsen is who you really want to keep your eye on though. His character Johann seems to be the voice of reason that tries to accomplish a little too much for his own good. The method in which Mikkelsen is able to fluctuate so many of his emotions results in this absolutely riveting performance from the Danish actor.
Johann is seen as a bad influence because he only seems to encourage Christian's destructive nature, but it's his vast ideas that could one day lead to people finally being free that results in him being viewed as such a dangerous individual. His frowned upon and once thought to be absurd ideas are reevaluated once he successfully gives the King's son a smallpox inoculation. Other than falling in love and having all of the slip and slide action any man could possibly ask for with the wife of the King he just befriended, all that's left for Johann to do is use Christian as a puppet to get his ideas across to the Court which he does.
The cinematography isn't overly extravagant, but there are several shots in the film that will remain burned in your mind because of how they were shot. The close-up shot of the pen being dipped in ink at the start of the film, the lavish greenery of the Danish countryside, that amazing shot of Johann sitting in that throne like chair deluged with his own emotions and the scene where Johann and Caroline go horseback riding. It's the way they take shelter under that ominous tree once it starts raining and time seems to stand still as Caroline tells Johann that the rain reminds her of England that makes it so memorable.
What's so frustrating about "A Royal Affair" is its final act. The lying that's involved, the backstabbing that's used to get to the top, and the elaborate hoax that's concocted only makes the whole situation worse. The way it's written is entirely believable as surely this sort of thing had to have happened at some point in history (and is more than likely reoccurring in some capacity), but it's just infuriating to see people that stubborn, pig-headed, and close-minded get what they desire. Nobody ever counts on the maid snorting the sheets.
There's some crazy foreshadowing occurring in "A Royal Affair," but no one seems to want to listen to its warnings. The performances are powerful and the set pieces are exquisite, but the conclusion will leave you feeling enormously agitated thanks to what seems like the encouragement of thickheadedness.