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A Royal Affair

En kongelig affære 2012 | 137 min | Not rated | 2.39:1

A Royal Affair


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Theatrical release date

 09 November, 2012
 15 June, 2012

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A Royal Affair Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, November 15, 2012

“A Royal Affair” commences much like any other costume drama, introducing woe and innocence lost with the arrival of an arranged marriage and a life lived away from the comfort of loved ones. However, instead of a mummification of emotions to portray era-specific conflicts, the feature finds a way to express deep desires and betrayals without expanding into bloated hysterics. Director Nikolaj Arcel manages to capture a sense of insanity and desire with “A Royal Affair,” while tending to all the decorative and ornately costumed staples of the genre. It’s a satisfactory offering of tension and manipulation boosted by excellent performances. Those well-versed in such tightly-corseted matters will remain one step ahead of it, but the essentials are convincing and, at times, successfully agonizing.

In the late 18th century, young Englishwoman Caroline (Alicia Vikander) is married off to the King of Denmark, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), sent to adapt to a foreign land ruled by religion and a general resistance to the Age of Enlightenment. Raised to rule, Christian’s life of control has corrupted his sanity, carrying on like a madman while Caroline keeps her distance, growing accustomed to her life of privilege as her yearning for creativity and free thought is gradually suffocated. Prompted by a desperate friend to become the King’s personal physician, German doctor Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) soon grows close with Christian, with the leader delighted to have a trustworthy man of authority at his side. Over time, Struensee falls in love with Caroline, instigating a secretive affair that results in the birth of their daughter. Struensee also prompts tremendous change throughout Denmark, using the King as a puppet to pass laws reflecting individual freedom and intellectual thought, leading the opposition, including priest Ove (David Dencik), to return fire through deceptive means, hoping to expose the affair and cast Struensee out of the kingdom.

Working from Danish history and a novel by author Bodil Steensen-Leth, “A Royal Affair” has the advantage of theatricality. Christian is no ordinary king, but a jester with a melted mind, leaving the bulk of his rule to a national council made up of old men and religious types working to maintain the status quo of the dark ages, where torture is law, peasants are disposable, and God’s light is the only way. Instead of drudging through a routine of rumor and elegance, the feature arrives on a tilt, observing a King who giggles uncontrollably, is prone to tantrums, and prefers the company of large-breasted prostitutes to his own wife, much to her relief. “A Royal Affair” is no slog, gamely working through areas of social discomfort and personal annoyance to bring the picture to life, pursuing character over culture.

The bulk of the movie belongs to the story of Struensee, though the bookends reflect Caroline’s point of view, writing a letter to her children with hopes that one day they will understand her motivations after she’s gone. Tracing the German’s almost accidental rise to power, fueled by Christian’s manic need to acquire a friend (placing second to the love of his Great Dane), “A Royal Affair” delivers convincing scenes of political influence, where Struensee uses his education and liberal tastes to bring illumination to an oppressed country, making Denmark the envy of Europe with its progressive laws, even resulting in a fan letter from Voltaire. The old guard hates the doctor, yet cannot manage to crack his influence, while Christian refuses to question Struensee’s kindly exploitation, like a son blindly following his father’s wishes. Arcel captures this escalation of liberation with conviction and some suspense, with the dismissed council members looking to strike back at the puppetmaster and his sinful, libertine ways.

The conflicts are broad but engrossing, with performances by Mikkelsen and Folsgaard especially effective with more nuanced moments of doubt. Vikander is also agreeable as the tormented Queen, unable to return Struensee’s love out of fear that her children will be stripped away from her.

“A Royal Affair” follows a traditional route of political disintegration, and 135 minutes is a long time to devote to story that’s not especially complex. Still, Arcel largely avoids a sticky sense of melodrama, holding to gut-wrenching reactions leaking out of stately postures, while the madness of Christian subplot adds flavor to a largely collected feature. Passions are kept at bay, yet “A Royal Affair” holds attention with its characters and extended focus on frustrations of the heart.

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Alicia Vikander
Director: Nikolaj Arcel

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