November 23, 2012
Film Review: A Royal Affair

Nicolaj Arcel
Score: 7.0

Ideally, one would prefer one’s king to be made of stout, stern stuff; the kind of man who could wisely command a kingdom with temperance and vision. It also wouldn’t hurt if they were large, physically imposing and so certain of themselves, their minions would feel in safe hands. In short, as close to the Arthur of legend as possible, minus all the jealousy and petty rage.

What, then, does one do confronted with a king who is exactly none of those things? A twitchy, uncertain king with a tremendous, gaping maw of insecurity and a propensity for a nervous laugh, less mirthful than a rumble of diffidence. Worse yet, what if this was the king you were ordained to marry?

Such is the fate of young Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander), a British citizen married off to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) of Denmark in the mid-18th century. Christian is no one’s idea of a commanding presence. He’s rude, impertinent, utterly self-absorbed, and, most damningly, beyond reckless. Caroline arrives with the best of intentions, but the combination of the King’s fecklessness and the drab state of the country — severe repression stemming from the King’s Council, a crony-festering order of high-ranking lords and religious leaders bent on keeping the commoners under tight thumb screws — quickly drive her bitter anguish.

But when the King meets Dr. Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelson), physician with a roguish sort of charm and a head full of ideas from the Enlightenment, and takes him on as his personal physician, Caroline suddenly finds a compatriot in the royal ensemble, one that eventually leads to a powerful, romantic entanglement and, eventually, the enacting of dozens of laws repealing the draconian ways of the Dark Ages in the country.

Naturally, the good times cannot last — as anyone the least familiar with King Arthur can readily attest — but in the interim, Denmark becomes one of the front-runners of the Enlightenment, going so far as to win a seal of approval from Voltaire himself, before a dastardly palace coup by the ousted royal court brings everything to a screeching halt.

Nicolaj Arcel’s Danish history lesson avoids several of the most glaring pitfalls of the genre — it is both illuminating and eminently entertaining. A good deal of its appeal is derived from a top-notch cast — in addition to excellent turns from the stunning Vikankder and reliably strong Mikkelson, Følsgaard plays the King as a kind of cross between a drunken frat boy and Tom Hulce’s portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus, as awful as he often is, there is something sad and tormented about him we can’t quite condemn him for — but there is more at work here as well.

As with all history lessons of value, the events echo almost too-perfectly our own time and province. Those in power will do nearly anything to stay there; the plight of the common man is too-often trampled underneath the freshly scrubbed boot of the tyrannical money holders; and, most depressingly, the common man himself is so simple-minded that their allegiance can be bought and manipulated to have them cheer the demise of the very thing fighting the hardest for them.

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