'Royal Affair' a Spirited, Handsome Glimpse at Danish History

Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel; Runtime: 137 minutes
Grade: A-

Locked-door rendezvous, passionate discussions about the future, plans to break from the restraints of one situation and into a more liberated one ... it makes you wonder which "affair" the title of Nikolaj Arcel's historical drama refers to: the romance between a queen and her husband's physician, or the Age of Enlightenment's courtship with the Danish throne. In so many words, it's both. Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, the writers who brought Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo books to the big (and little) screen in Sweden, prove their versatility by leaping from a maze of investigative technology and themes of sexual identity to (semi-)adapting Bodil Steensen-Leth's novel built around Denmark's late-1770s war of progressive political thought -- and Caroline Mathilde's repression in her marriage to mad king Christian VII. A Royal Affair neither rips bodices nor weighs itself down with excessive costume theatrics; instead, it's a cogent, approachable telling of stifled aspiration and idealism that led to a country's tricky transformation.

Told from the perspective of letters written by Caroline (Alicia Vikander), a British royal who explored the principles of lower-class freedom through works of the Enlightenment, A Royal Affair begins by showing the extent of King Christian's VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) insanity and how it complicates the early sight-unseen "courtship" -- and a particularly unpleasant first evening together -- that leads to their problematic marriage. As years pass and distance forms between them, due to the king's lust and Caroline's dropping of pretenses once their first heir arrives, followers of the Enlightenment discover that the mentally-ill king is in need of a physician, opening a path to influence the throne. Enter Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a German doctor and anonymously-published author of Enlightenment papers, who accepts the invitation. From here, the focus falls on how Struensee non-maliciously influences the malleable king as a trusted adviser after earning his good graces -- and the bond that forms between the doctor and the like-minded queen when Christian demands that he "make her fun".

The historical thrust behind A Royal Affair centers on the king and the shifts in Denmark's power, yet the film predominately focuses on Caroline and Struensee as forward-thinkers with idealistic desires and ambitions -- and the positions they hold that could, through the right decisions, reward their beliefs. Arcel and Heisterberg capably flesh out their personalities around their evolving motivations; Caroline's resilience slowly emerges from under the weight of the Danish throne, though her voice still muffled by the royal court and family, while Struensee subtle charm and multifaceted perspective reveal a man with an optimistic future for Denmark. They're both haunted by their lack of self-determination, though, making them hushed, intense souls whose dispositions beg to be cut free without them saying a word. This becomes especially poignant when the two finally meet, where the assumptions they make at first -- notably Caroline's hasty dislike of Struensee -- surrender to a mutual discovery of their philosophical alignments.

Like many period dramas, A Royal Affair often lingers on meticulous garments and delicate photography that plays with depth-of-field and relishes landscapes, creating a gorgeous glimpse at the fleeting escapes from Denmark's stuffy environment. The visual details are never without purpose, though; shots of a rushing brook or a hand grabbing another before a dance appear indulgent out of context, maybe even a little in-context, but they feel essential because of how they underscore the sensations of rare freedom that Caroline and Struensee fight so diligently for. Passion, of both romantic and political variety, stirs in the aesthetics and intellectual points elevated by the film's purposes, which reach a peak once the romance between the physician and the queen finally blossoms. This occurs in one of the most convincing, sumptuous slow-down shots of a masquerade dance I've witnessed, furthered by candlelight and expressive glances in a familiar but tremendously effective context.

A Royal Affair's plot sustains a surprisingly constant flow of urgency from one period to the next, especially in the fraught romantic scenes between the two chief supporters of the Enlightenment, a result of clever, self-aware writing from Arcel and Heisterberg. Navigating the stately grounds of Scandinavian historical turmoil and covert trips to bedchambers, the story's rhythm remains brisk and void of overt melodrama as it repeatedly brings them all under one room for a unified objective: the people's freedom and well-being, something unachievable under Denmark's entrenched customs. Often when political machinations arise in these dramas, keeping up with the motives, crossed wires, and deceit can be a chore. Here, it's handled with a deft hand that allows the situation to avoid moral black-and-white appearances; the ways Caroline and Struensee flirt with being discovered are smartly-written and organic, especially when suspicion arises and they're forced to react, while the sly manipulation by the doctor upon his king strikes compelling, even vibrant notes once they rush to enact political reforms.

There's no denying that A Royal Affair has its share of soap-opera inclinations, full of opportune suspicions, shifty glances, and covert coups as plans fall into motion, but it never allows itself to appear soapy due to the impeccable performances that authenticate those trapped in this Denmark's struggle between bureaucrats and progressives. While the madness of King Christian VII comes to life through Mikkel Boe Følsgaard's nuanced, credible portrayal, it's the conflicted chemistry between Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen as Catherine and Struensee that embolden this depiction of the Enlightenment's distressed ascendance; their cloak-and-dagger romance, and how it ebbs and flows amid the country's circumstances, provides a heartrending backbone to the events that follow. This isn't a moment in history with a happy ending, a dramatic more-bitter-than-sweet expression of what happens when new principles are rushed into application, but the enthusiasm driving their strife for a better country -- and the two weathered idealists' passion for one another -- ensures that this cinematic affair doesn't end without leaving an enduring mark.

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