Dir. Nikolaj Arcel, Denmark, 2011, 128 mins, subtitles
Review by Dee Pilgrim
What a pleasure to watch a costume drama not set in England, but in a foreign country, detailing a true story you know absolutely nothing about. A Royal Affair is one such rare gem, revealing a history rich in passion, romance and intrigue, which is all the more enjoyable simply because you will probably never have come across this story before.
In the late 1700s, young Caroline Mathilde (Vikander) travels to Denmark to marry the king, Christian V11(Folsgaard). Caroline has been groomed for a royal marriage from a young age and is well prepared for her role as the producer of royal offspring, however, what no one takes the trouble to tell her is that Christian is a few cards short of a full deck, preferring to stage plays and elaborate japes than do anything remotely kingly (like sleep with his wife). But Caroline is resilient and along with one of the king’s close advisers she sets about being a good queen, organising the Danish court and eventually producing a child.
A forward-thinking doctor (Mikkelsen) is found and employed to see if his ‘revolutionary’ theories can help the king and with much cajoling and tender care, Christian starts to improve, believing Dr Struensee is his best friend and confidante. But the doctor is not only revolutionary in his methods but also in his thinking, wishing to overturn Denmark’s antiquated laws and ways (amounting to a state of serfdom for most of the population), and turn it into a modern country. In this endeavour he is joined by the well-educated Caroline who can see the benefits his innovations would bring, but as the two become closer in their endeavours to persuade Christian they embark on a passionate affair which will be the downfall of them both.
Written and directed by Nikolaj Arcel, probably best known here in England for his screenplay of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, A Royal Affair is compelling stuff — a period piece with so many resonances for today it never feels stilted or stuffy. Arcel masterly crafts a story of human weakness but also of strength and the desire to do something good that transcends the era it is set in. With lovely costumes and settings, some wonderful performances (Folsgaard is especially good as the foppish, silly king who whinnies like a horse and often resembles one, while Vikander and Mikkelsen are so well-matched you’ll be rooting for them all the way through the movie) and an intelligent script, its two hour running time simply slips by.
It is so refreshing to be allowed a glimpse of an unknown history you’ve never come across before, it’s just a shame this beautiful little film will probably not get the audience it deserves.