Review: A Royal Affair

(Nikolaj Arcel, 2012, Denmark)
(Originally posted at Take One)

Showing further evidence that Nikolaj Arcel is nothing but a diverse filmmaker (after having co-wrote the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the 2002 children’s heist film Catch That Kid), his latest directorial effort, the somewhat unexcitingly titled A Royal Affair, sees Arcel taking on a factual intrigue in Danish history – part political thriller, part epic love story – and bringing to it a seamless confidence that emanates throughout its handsomely devastating proceedings. The film is produced by the Zentropa film company and executive produced by Lars Von Trier, but there are no whiffs of the minimalist Dogme movement they have become known for.

Rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander plays Carolina Mathilde, an English princess arriving in 1766’s Denmark to enter into what transpires to be a challenging, unromantic marriage to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a mentally unhinged monarch prone to dalliances in brothels, juvenile outbursts and excessive masturbation. Appointed as his personal surgeon, local doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (a superb Mads Mikkelsen, of Casino Royale fame) is able to worm his way into Christian’s apparently tormented psychology, gaining the king’s devotion and trust whilst successfully, and clandestinely, using his influences to alter the laws of the country in the favour of the free-thinking Enlightenment movement. Whilst stimulating his king and country toward a state of societal reform, Struensee enters into an illicit affair with Carolina, which has dangerous ramifications when the powerful figures, who are becoming increasingly sidelined by the king’s manipulation, seek to destabilise this new regime, building towards Struensee’s ultimate downfall.

Having at its core three strong and believable performances, even if Følsgaard’s sniggeringly grotesque Christian teeters on caricature, A Royal Affair is a sumptuous and grandiose film that matches its scandalous historical backdrop with impressive visual flairs and a sexually and politically frank demeanour. Combining an exquisite attention to detail in the sets and period costumes as well as a modern stylistic sensibility that benefits from fluid, balanced cinematography, Arcel manages to break away from the usual trappings of period dramas and brings a rousingly tense atmosphere and an engaging pathos to the central narrative of a faltering kingdom at the brunt of a secretive but well-meaning upheaval.

Effectively the story of two relationships concerning Struensee and the respective king and queen of Denmark, the film suffers only slightly from its overly sombre mood, occasionally scuppered by a tendency to shift wholeheartedly into calculating melodrama. Yet Arcel, who also penned the tactile screenplay alongside Dragon Tattoo partner Rasmus Heisterberg, rarely lets these elements of the story distract from the film’s overall simmering atmosphere, which is appropriately and disarmingly sustained until boiling over in a cold and convincingly poignant dénouement. Although the credibility of the romantic subplot between Struensee and Carolina is somewhat undone by a lack of definition, with the beatific Vikander and a reserved, vaguely arrogant Mikkelsen given little time to demonstrate a particularly involving chemistry, as well as a disappointingly short exploration of the full effects that Struensee’s duplicity has on the wayward Christian- which is summed up all too vicariously at the end, A Royal Affair is, however, a refreshingly tender period piece that fully utilises its plethora of cinematic elements to fine effect.

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