If you crave a tale of forbidden love, social chaos, and intense repression of the heart and mind, A Royal Affair is the film that brings forth these vices with sumptuous clarity. Winner of the Best Costume Oscar and recipient of Denmark's official Best Picture nomination, this period costume drama is one of the best historical pieces of 2012. It is an absolutely convincing experience as a film and an incredibly detailed account of Denmark's darkest period at the beginning of the European Enlightenment. It is also one of the most sympathetic portrayals of mental illness for a film in recent cinema.
Finely and engagingly directed by Nikolaj Arcel, he is generally known as a screenwriter for his fantastic adaptation of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the animated film, Ronal the Barbarian. His attention to detail concerning human frailties, strengths, and hypocrisies, is communicated here with great effect. The film pays homage to the 1767 betrothal of British Princess Caroline and Danish King Christian VII who were paired up for political reasons. As it often happened, these marriages were historically unhappy. This particularly case was no dream marriage for Caroline: history records that Christian was very likely mentally ill. Thus begins a tragic story that tests Caroline's inner strength, her patience, her intelligence, and most importantly, her passionate love for something greater. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander makes a fine performance as Caroline (sporting a fantastic English accent when she narrates and speaks English) by keeping the audience completely focused on her thoughtful silence and careful curiosity. She maintains unfathomable strength in forgiving Christian's unhinged ways (Actor Mikkel Boe Følsgaard makes Christian a formidable madman and a poor misunderstood child at the same time) as well as a constant empathy toward the ills of Danish society, which somewhat echo Christian's mental state. On the other side of the aisle is a great forward thinker of the Enlightenment, Doctor Johann Struensee (played by the ever-subtle Mads Mikkelsen), who was politically maneuvered, like Caroline, to become Christian's personal physician in order to influence the King toward more progressive politics. Caroline eventually catches Struensee's eye as history would have it, and henceforth begins one of the most fascinating love affairs in Western history. The sexual tension between the actors feels very primal, and yet, there is still an aura comprising of classic Romanticism. Just as the Enlightenment was at its height, Romanticism was still a thing to be pursued. Director Arcel excels at this balance of intelligence and beauty juxtaposed to desire and suffering. As the story continues, the beautiful, painterly veil of Denmark is slowly lifted away by those who prefer to see the kingdom in its earlier Dark Age hypocrisy.
Quite a bit of A Royal Affair feels like John Ford's costume classic, Mary of Scotland, where a courageous female protagonist falls in love with an outsider and then proceeds to defend herself and those she still cares for before suffering a brutal verdict. Like both films, there is a distinguished devotion by the director to see memorable personalities among the monotonous culture. A Royal Affair has a specific advantage due to the openness of society now (thanks to many forms of the Enlightenment) to not censor the extent of the affair, the children that it brought to the world, and the horrors created by those who judged under the cloak of self-righteousness. This film is one of the most beautiful works of 2012, and it must be seen by those who wish to understand how far society has come (and how far we still have to go) in understanding love and sacrifice.