They say that history is written by the winners, but every so often a story about someone on the wrong side of history will come along that is so remarkable and so enticing that it demands our attention. And dramatists have long known that a tragedy can be just as juicy and entertaining as a victory in the right hands. This brings us to Denmark's 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee "A Royal Affair," a lovely costume drama about one of the most exciting episodes in Danish history.
The story is set in the 18th century, during the reign of King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard), who was known for being mentally unstable, so it was really Chamberlain Bernsorff (Bent Mejding), who was running the country. Our narrative is split between two characters. First, there's young Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), who is brought to Denmark to marry King Christian as a teenager, quickly becomes disillusioned with her boorish husband, and refuses to have anything to do with him after their son is born. The second is a German doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who through lucky circumstance becomes King Christian's royal physician and trusted advisor. The court is initially doubtful about the influence of Struensee, but the doctor manages to befriend the Queen, as they share similar intellectual interests and political ambitions.
"A Royal Affair" is reminiscent of the various dramatizations of the final days at Versailles with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, with its cloak and dagger court intrigues and eye-catching production design. However, director Nikolaj Arcel not only gives us the high emotions of the royal scandal, but also keeps a critical eye on the related political maneuverings of the Danish court and Struensee's serious attempts to bring about major social reforms. Struensee, the Queen, and their allies are all portrayed as highly intelligent, admirable people, who are acting with the best of intentions, but they gravely underestimate the power of the court and the strength of their own positions. And they also underestimate their own ability to be corrupted by power. The film stays well balanced between the perspectives of its two leads, and between the politics and the personal relationships. It's very sympathetic to Struensee and his goals, but at the same time is good about highlighting his faults and inevitable mistakes.
It's the performances that make the film so memorable, though, particularly Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen as the Queen and Struensee. Their relationship is the center of the film, one built through careful, diplomatic conversations initiated by Struensee to help improve the marital relations of the King and Queen. However, Mikkelsen's best scenes are when he gets to be raw and emotional, showing us the passionate, flawed man underneath the nonchalant exterior of the court doctor. Mikkelsen's been typecast as a cold-blooded baddie in his appearances in Western media, notably in "Casino Royale" and the "Hannibal" television series. Here, Struensee is simply a clever and talented man, who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
Vikander, on the other hand, is best when she's keeping up the Queen's practiced exterior of cold disapproval, while radiating youthful vulnerability. Vikander has an unusual gravity and poise, and her fluency in English plus a growing list of impressive performances all but guarantee we're going to be seeing a lot more of her on the big screen soon. Mikkel Følsgaard is also invaluable as King Christian, who initially seems like an overgrown frat boy who is shunning his royal responsibilities in an act of rebellion, rather than someone who is suffering serious mental and emotional problems. However, as time goes on, and we see him manipulated by one faction after another, it's clear exactly how little power he has, and you can't help but feel sorry for him.
Historical dramas like this can often feel stuffy and lifeless, suffocated by the need to stay suitably faithful and respectful to the historical record. Or they can have the opposite problem and come off as an obvious falsehood, fashioned with far too much dramatic license to be believable. "A Royal Affair" manages to avoid both extremes. The historical figures come across as actual human beings, and though some events play out in ways that seem unlikely, they aren't unbelievable. The characters and relationships are clearly fictionalized to a large degree, but they make sense in context, and are well integrated into what we know to be the actual events of the day.
I think it helps that "A Royal Affair" is based on a chapter of European history that isn't well known outside of Denmark. I didn't have any preconceived notions of Dr. Struensee and Queen Caroline one way or another, so the film was able to surprise me several times. I can always appreciate a film that's able to do that, and this one does it very well.