A Royal Affair – Film Review

I continued my recent Danish streak with this historical film about adultery and Enlightenment in the 18th century Denmark, which succeeds both as a sweeping romance and a tense political drama.

Though I’ve always had an avid interest in the European history, I knew virtually nothing about the history of Denmark, so I’ve never heard of Queen Caroline Mathilde, played here by luminous Alicia Vikander. Born and raised in England, Caroline goes on to marry young King Christian VII of Denmark, but any excitement she might have felt dies the minute she meets her intended husband. Christian is an infantile, emotionally unstable man, clearly suffering from some kind of mental illness and fond of booze and prostitutes, and his treatment of his wife ranges at first from cruelty to indifference. Having fulfilled her primary queenly obligation of giving birth to a male heir, Caroline settles into what she thinks is bound to be an arid and empty life.

However, during his grand tour of Europe, Christian comes across a German physician named Johann Struensee (ever-excellent Mads Mikkelsen), who proves remarkably adept at handling Christian’s mood swings and becomes his closest friend and confidant. Struensee is a man of Enlightenment and an admirer of Voltaire and Rousseau, whose ideas are not welcome in the rigidly conservative Denmark. Caroline, who shares the same liberal ideas, is instantly drawn to Struensee, and persuades him to use his influence over the malleable king.

Because of Christian’s illness, the real power lies with the nobles who control the royal council, but under Struensee’s influence Christian eventually grants him the power to pass any law, making him Denmark’s de facto absolute ruler. Struensee and Caroline’s relationship meanwhile grows beyond shared intellectual interests. For a while they live in a giddy state of progressive social reforms by day, and personal happiness in the privacy of the night. But Struensee’s new laws antagonise the nobility, whose privileges and finances take a hit, and, as many historical examples can testify, pissing off the aristocracy doesn’t do wonders for life expectancy.

After watching the film I naturally wanted to find out how accurate its portrayal of history was. Incredibly, the truth in this case was just as dramatic as fiction; Struensee’s meteoric ascent to power and the explosion of new legislation that transformed the Danish society really did happen. What’s less accurate is the film’s assertion that Queen Caroline was a passionate admirer of the Enlightenment and a member of Struensee’s intellectual circle. For the sake of the film though, it made sense to draw a connection between politics and love, besides, Vikander and Mikkelsen make a striking and splendid couple. Another nice touch is that the portrayal of Christian becomes rather more nuanced and even sympathetic as the film goes on, he’s not merely a useful simpleton or a one-dimensional violent psychopath. Juicy and dramatic story, lavish and sumptuous visuals and excellent acting is everything you’d want from a period drama.

P.S. As expected I spotted a few familiar faces from the various Danish TV series I’d watched, who were a strange sight in their powdered wigs and 18th century fashions.

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