Set in the last half of the 18th Century, during the Age of the Enlightenment, A Royal Affair examines the reign of the mentally unstable King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) from the perspective of his queen (Alicia Vikander) and most trusted advisor, German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) whose wide, sweeping reforms (the abolishment of censorship, torture, the slave trade, and an increase on taxes of the aristocracy for the good of the people) and affair with the Queen, albeit briefly, changed the course of Denmark’s history.
Unable to acquire the rights to Stuensee’s story, director Nikolaj Arcel chose instead to adapt a Danish romantic novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. Because of the source material, far more emphasis is put on the relationships the Queen has with both her husband and Struensee, and the behind-the-scenes palace politics and court intrigue, than the reforms themselves or their effect on the Danish people. The story also never questions the doctor’s noble purpose or motives for grabbing so much power (including so thoroughly dismantling the King’s government) that, along with his affair with the Queen, ultimately led to his downfall.
Our story begins with the unlucky marriage of Caroline Mathilde (Vikander) to the mentally unstable King of Denmark and her struggles and extreme loneliness in the years that followed. When the King’s stalled tour around the country falters due to his ill health, a pair of out-of-favor noblemen (Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Cyron Melville) hatch a plan to push a small time idealistic German doctor into the role of King’s physician. Once in place, the doctor will use his new influence over the King to return the nobles to their rightful places within the court.
The plan is a remarkable success, as Struensee’s unique personality and ability to talk with the addled King soon gives him a place of enormous influence and power. The introduction of Struensee to Caroline, and their burgeoning romance, begins a coup (in all but name, as their new laws have the tacit approval of a crazy and mostly disinterested King) as the pair of lovers begin pushing the nation of Denmark into the Age of Enlightenment, whether it likes it or not.
Despite the romantic lens that Danish director Nikolaj Arcel focuses history through the story is an intriguing and well-produced, although not always engaging, one. The lavish period backgrounds and settings help sell the time period and a trio of strong performances by Vikander, Mikkelsen, Følsgaard help sell the tale (even when it drifts a little too far into the realm of tragic melodrama and soap opera). Of the three, I was most impressed by Vikander, who has the hardest of the three roles by performing the complex set of emotions Caroline traverses during the rise and fall of her fortunes over the course of the movie.
A Royal Affair certainly isn’t the best period piece of the holiday season (which coincidentally also stars our leading lady), but what the well-crafted and impeccably acted movie does, it does well. It’s likely you’ll have to seek the film out in art houses, but, for fans of historical period pieces (even romanticized ones such as this), it’s worth a look.