Tasmania’s Mary Donaldson married Crown Prince Frederik and created an interesting chapter in the Danish monarchy. But some 200 years prior to this was an even more intriguing royal tale. It is now the subject of the opulent, period film, A Royal Affair.
Writer/director, Nikolaj Arcel and co-writer, Rasmus Heisterberg (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) have done an excellent job of telling the story of Caroline Mathilde, the younger sister of King George III. Betrothed at 15, her “knight in shining armour” was the mad Danish King known as King Christian VII. Her Royal Highness went to live with this man she’d never met and in a country she’d never visited. It was a recipe for disaster, one proven even more so when she discovered that her partner was an imbecile.
Queen Caroline performed her royal duty and gave birth to a son who would later become King Frederick VI. After doing so she resigned herself to a quiet life in the castle, encouraging her bored husband – who called her mother and was more preoccupied with his dog – to go abroad. King Christian reveals himself to be more a joker than royalty, as he enjoys acting on childish impulses except when it comes to drinking, prostitutes and sex, which he shows a particular affection for.
A mysterious, royal physician is appointed to cure or at least calm the King’s ailments. Dr. Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale)) and the King initially bond over Shakespeare, proving the latter is perhaps not as simple as we originally thought. The former is a radical, freethinker and is initially rough around the edges. But he ultimately wins the heart of the neglected Queen. The couple become sympathetic allies and bedfellows, something that will eventually cause a revolution.
The story focuses on the love between the Queen and the Doctor. The couple exert their influence over a King that blindly trusts them. They achieve great reforms to the country’s strict and oppressive laws. By adopting social justice causes, they introduce public inoculation programs, universal education, orphanages and freedom of expression and abolish the previous laws of censorship and corporal punishment. But this soon earns the trio – and in particular the foreign Doctor – some powerful enemies among the government council, clergy and upper classes who see their powers and income diminished and taxes increased to fund these new programs.
Mikkel Boe Føesgaard plays the cuckolded King and it is no surprise that he won the best actor award at the Berlinale. He treads the line between sanity, stupidity and plain silliness meaning the audience will pity, laugh, despise and sympathise with him in equal measure. Føesgaard and the other two leads do a stellar job, Alicia Vikander is illuminating as the Queen. She is dignified, intelligent and cultured- a superior in every way to her misunderstood husband. And Mikkelsen also proves to be outstanding as the rough but charismatic liberalist and socially conscious Doctor.
At 137 minutes the film could’ve been tightened. But it does deal with a lot of different themes: conservatism vs. the enlightenment; questions of loyalty and betrayal; plus political power plays, history and romance. The focus of the whole affair is primarily on the adulterous relationship and while slow burning, it does ensure that lots of care and detail have been paid in developing the three complex and intense characters.
A Royal Affair is a nuanced and dramatic piece full of lavish elegance and gorgeous cinematography. It is an intimate tale full of emotion, conflict and tension fuelled by passion and some clandestine secrets that had ramifications for an entire country. A regal romp and epic, it proves that matters of the heart are often complex, imperfect and emotionally dense.
Review Score: 4 stars
Originally published on 16 June 2012 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/sydney/sydney-film-festival-2012-review-a-royal-affair-m
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