As a historical drama about a dangerous liaison and surrounding intrigues at the royal court, “A Royal Affair” nicely fulfills its genre requirements. It looks gorgeous as much as it is required for our eyes, and it also has an involving story about the complicated human relationships between three people who brought significant social changes into their country during the Age of Enlightenment.
It is 1766, and Caroline Mathild(Alice Vikander), a younger sister of George III of Great Britain, has been engaged to the King of Denmark since she was very young. She is not that unhappy about herself being locked in an engagement of political reasons, and she is ready to be a dutiful queen to His Majesty, but, unfortunately, Christian VII of Denmark(Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) turns out to be not a normal guy she can love. It is apparent from their first encounter that he is a mentally disturbed lad who acts like a horny paranoid child, and he quickly becomes the last person she wants to spend a night with in her royal chamber. They somehow manage to have their son after 15 months, and, as soon as her duty is fulfilled, the King promptly goes out for his tour around Europe, and she cannot possibly be happier about that.
And that is how Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee(Mads Mikkelsen) comes into their life. When the King seriously needs a doctor to attend him during his tour, Struensee reluctantly becomes one of the candidates after being persuaded by the minor Danish aristocrats who have been looking for a chance to be admitted into the royal court again. As a smart, sensible, and sophisticated man of the Enlightenment, Struensee quickly gains the King’s confidence during their meeting thanks to their shared interest, so he soon comes with the King to the royal palace as his personal doctor.
Caroline does not welcome this good-looking doctor much, but she is gradually drawn to him through his ideas about social reforms. To a woman suffocated by her environment, he introduces Rousseau, Voltaire, and other well-known thinkers representing the Age of Reason through his books, and they spend more time with each other for sharing thoughts, and, yes, there are many passionate moments as they are swept by the emotions generated between them.
But the story is not just about their romance, and it is also about how they try to bring social reforms into Denmark, which was oppressed under its aristocracy and the heavy influence from the Church at that time. Not many people in the court want the changes they glimpse from outside, and they try to keep their world intact as much as they can by using the King as their puppet/representative; all the King has to do in the Council is just signing the papers passed to him by them, and he does not feel bad about that except being bored by them.
Struensee and Caroline slowly come to realize what they can do about this problem. Starting with smallpox vaccination, they find a way to persuade and manipulate their King, who happily follows his best friend’s instructions and begins to behave ‘more normally’ than usual in the Council. Not long after that, Struensee becomes the “de facto regent” of the country, and he keeps introducing more progressive social reforms to Denmark – and that makes many people in the court, including the Queen Dowager Juliane Marie(Trine Dyrholm) and Ove Høegh-Guldberg(David Dencik), very unpleased about what’s going on.
The intrigues at the court naturally follow, and that makes the relationship between Struensee and Caroline more politically dangerous, but they cannot preventing themselves from showing their feelings even when they decide they should be more discreet and careful about their affair. Mads Mikkelsen, a talented actor who has steadily gained his international popularity since his villainous turn in “Casino Royal”(2006), is good as a taciturn handsome man who is driven by passion as well as idealism, and he and Alicia Vikander have a nice chemistry between them as a couple behind the throne who like the thrill from their political partnership as much as the warmth from their secret night meetings. It was fun and exciting for them at first, but they gradually find themselves still stuck in their world and its politics, and they have to deal with the series of consequent situations as the sense of danger is accumulating around them.
As the King between these two lovers, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, a newcomer who won Best Actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival for his debut performance in this movie, is excellent in his portrayal of a tormented man who feels trapped as much as two people close to him, and his complex performance is as crucial as his co-actors’ in making the drama between their characters effective. Christian may be a simpleton who can be easily manipulated, but he has his own feelings as he struggles with his own problems and other difficult problems thrown at him, and Følsgaard has a small poignant scene where he shows his friend how much willing he is to be oblivious to what’s going on inside his palace for not losing a close friend who has been the best thing in his life.
“A Royal Affair” is chosen as Denmark’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category of the 85th Academy Awards in the next year, and it might get the other nominations in the technical categories as well. The director Nikolaj Arcel makes a good use of the locations in Prague, and its gorgeous production design and sumptuous costumes are first-rate. The dialogues are a little too self-conscious at times, but the main characters and their story are believable and engaging, and the performances are enjoyable. This is a well-made period drama with some amusements, and at least your eyes won’t be disappointed.