A Royal Affair
The terrific Mads Mikkelsen takes the screen in a historical drama about Denmark’s mad King, his young, disappointed wife, and the progressive thinker who became the power behind the throne, dragging Denmark into the Enlightenment over the protests of the priests and the aristocracy.
"A Royal Affair" may not be the most clever title for this production from director Nikolaj Arcel (it’s no better in the original Danish), but the movie itself -- based on the novel "Prinsesse af blodet" ("Princess of Blood," a much slyer title for this story) -- is a piercing meditation on the nature, and limits, of power, as well as the inevitability of human progress.
The entrenched interests of Denmark have little interest in King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) except as a puppet for resisting a tidal swell of change that’s caught the rest of Europe up in the Enlightenment, an age not only of rationality and scientific advance but also of a more liberal social order. The more things change elsewhere, the more Denmark stays the same: The land-owning nobility exercise the power of life and death over their serfs (who are, for all intents and purposes, property of the gentry); censorship is in full effect; only the elite and elect are provided education; and there’s little sense of the practical and humane benefits of any system of health care.
When Christian weds his English cousin Caroline (Alicia Vikander), the young queen is astonished to find her books confiscated upon her arrival in Denmark. Worse, it turns out that Christian is eccentric -- worse than eccentric, actually. He’s barking mad.
The film downplays the mental illness that the historical Christian VII suffered and presents him more in the vein of a troubled, but essentially immature, man. He’s not unlike Tom Hulce’s Mozart in the 1984 film Milos Foreman-directed "Amadeus," whereas the real Christian was afflicted with hallucinations and other severe symptoms.
But this tweak allows us to get the general idea, move the film forward more readily, and provide a more comprehensible opportunity for Mikkelsen’s German doctor, Johann Struensee, to make a connection with the afflicted Kind and become his personal physician. Struensee sees in Christian the power he needs to bring reform to Denmark, but it’s Caroline he needs most, both as an avenue to the King’s broad authority and as a love interest. Otherwise, Christian is happy to view Struensee as a new buddy to hang out with at taverns and brothels.
Once Struensee maneuvers himself into a position of sufficient influence, he sets about reforming Denmark. A program of vaccination against smallpox is the first of his major innovations; like everything that follows, it upsets the church and the nobility by threatening their hold over the populace. A counter-strike against Struensee isn’t long in coming, and it’s his own affair with the Queen that provides his enemies with their most potent weapon.
Mikkelsen commands the film from start to finish. Vikander and Følsgaard hold their own, but it’s Mikkelsen’s performance that defines the film, lifting it from costume drama to historically resonant tragedy. In one long shot, Struensee sits perfectly still, but a struggle is raging inside him: He’s jealous that, for the sake of appearances, Caroline must be sexually intimate with her husband. In one moment, the depth of his possessive, sexually animal side and the strength of his intellect are both evident, and his intellect seems to be losing, bit by bit, to his primal passions.
Mikkelson’s primacy in this film is a fitting thing, since it was Struensee who defined the brief flare of light that shone over Denmark before his fall. But the embers of his innovations did not die out; in time, Struensee’s reforms took deeper root and lifted Denmark out of the Middle Ages. The human cost to this salvation -- Struensee’s and Caroline’s sacrifices -- form the heart of Arcel’s film.
There are moments when this production almost feels like a rebuke to our modern age, a time of high technology and scientific knowledge increasingly beset by willful ignorance and the spiritual comfort food of superstition. Arcel takes pains to show us the brutality and misery of life before the advent of widespread reasoned thought in Europe; to see the beacon of hope and progress that the Enlightenment sparked now dimming is to fear that the dead peasant Arcel shows us on his torture rack, and the mud-spattered serfs living in terror of disease, the church, and their so-called betters, are less a reminder of where we’ve been than a warning of where we’re headed.