Movie Review: A Royal Affair (En kongelig affaere)
The Charlotte Observer
Midway through “A Royal Affair,” one character tells the story of King Arthur: Monarch neglects beautiful wife, wife falls in love with handsome immigrant who came to assist king with socio-political agenda, conflict ensues and people die. Point taken. But the Danish entry for the foreign-film Oscar is about more than its love triangle.
The king is Christian VII, who married Princess Carolina Matilde (sister of Britain’s George III) a decade before America launched the Revolutionary War. That timing may explain George’s indifference toward her plight: Danish nobles mock her, censor her reading, and reject her progressive ideas; her husband ignores her sexually, chases courtesans and gives in to ever more bizarre behavior. (The source of his mental illness is unclear in the film and, apparently, in history.)
Into the political backwater of Copenhagen comes German-born Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen of “Casino Royale”), who becomes the king’s personal physician. He tries to bring ideas from the Age of Enlightenment, which has already taken root in France and Germany, to his new country. But he’s opposed by everyone except the quixotic Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, making his feature film debut) and the despised Caroline (Alicia Vikander of “Anna Karenina”).
Writers Rasmus Heisterberg and Nicolaj Arcel are known in America for the original version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” This film is the exact opposite: stately instead of propulsive, emotionally warm instead of chilly, lit by candles and sun instead of flashlights and neon.
Arcel directs with sympathy for all three of the main characters and doesn’t make pure villains of the others: They believe that showing compassion for lower classes – including such basic acts as freeing slave-like serfs or taxing gambling and luxury horses to fund hospitals – will bankrupt the state and/or impinge too far on their comfort. (Draw whatever modern political parallels you like.)
Følsgaard inspires pity as well as contempt; he’s undone more by foolishness and carelessness than venality. There are odd hints that some of his behavior may be assumed: He repeatedly quotes Hamlet, a Dane who pretends to be mad in order to better observe his court’s behavior.
The fine supporting cast includes David Dencik (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) as an unflappable priest and Trine Dyrholm as Christian’s stepmother, who wants to put her own son on the throne. (That also has an Arthurian flavor.)
Vikander reveals her range to American audiences for the first time, and Mikkelsen gets to show his noble side before playing one of the most insidious villains in fiction: Dr. Lecter in the NBC-TV series “Hannibal” next year. At 47, perhaps his time to be an international star has come.