A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære)
Denmark (2012) Dir. Nikolaj Arcel
Our Scandinavian neighbours have proven themselves as masters of the dark and brooding crime thriller with their vast catalogue of superb TV series, but this doesn’t mean we should dismiss them as one hit wonders. They are equally capable of delivering compelling and visually authentic historical dramas too, as this dramatised account of a true incident set around the Danish monarchy demonstrates.
In 1765 fifteen year-old Princess Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander), sister of King George III, is married off to Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard) to strengthen relations between the two nations. A year later Christian has ascended to the throne and the couple have a son – the future Frederick VI of Denmark – but the marriage is an unhappy one, due in part to Christian’s mental illness and his subsequent ignoring of his wife.
Whilst on a tour of Europe, Christian seeks a physician and the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) gets the job. The pair bond and soon Struensee becomes the King’s most trusted confidante. Struensee also strikes up a relationship with Caroline over a shared interest in Enlightenment literature which leads to an inevitable affair.
It is quite remarkable how the above summary reads as a deliberately scripted plot for a drama, making its reality even more incredible to modern audiences – then again, a lot of literature and art is inspired by true life stories anyway. The Danish setting would suggest this to be a lesser known tale for many British folk, even with one of our own being at the centre of it, so this film serves as a fine introduction to this historical scandal for the uninitiated.
The genesis of the film comes from director Nikolaj Arcel and his screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg reading the novel The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist, but a dispute over the rights to the novel with another production company lead to Arcel turning to the erotic novel Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth as his source of inspiration instead, using the book’s narration from Caroline’s point of view. However elements of Enquist’s novel were also adopted but suitably altered to avoid plagiarism.
Beyond the bodice ripping adultery of the film’s title, a mordant subplot affords us a look at the lust for power and control within the monarchy and extensive law makers. Denmark, at this point in time, is portrayed as a rather archaic country in terms of democracy and class structure, with social equality apparently even more distant than in other countries.
When Caroline first arrives at the palace and asks for her books she is told they have been destroyed as they contravene Denmark’s censorship laws. She immediately finds herself bored and stifled as result, the King’s wandering caprice and short attention span exacerbating the problem. And if the smothering of the Danish royal protocol wasn’t enough, Christian’s stepmother Juliana Maria (Trine Dyrholm) is hovering like a vulture ready to swoop in and have her own son take the throne instead.
Meanwhile Christian’s fragile state allows Struensee to gain his trust and influence his political opinion which doesn’t sit well with the Privy Council, over which the King has no authority. Struensee asserts his ideas of radical reforms such as an end to serfdom, homes for orphans, abolishing both censorship laws and torture.
Such progressive thinking is greeted as an abomination but while the ordinary people rejoice, the ex-council members, Juliana Marie and noted statesman Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik) converge to bring Struensee down, and his affair with Caroline – which produced an illicit child passed off as Christian’s – is all the ammunition they need.
Denmark isn’t alone in having a self serving monarchy that refuses to change with the times – the history books are full of them – but the sadness about this particular instance is not just how the reforms were so quickly reversed once Struensee was eliminated but how many of these ideas can be transposed to modern day politics. Certainly the removal of power for the rich and influential (i.e bankers, industry tycoons, etc) would be welcome by so many of us, I’m sure!
The historical setting afford us to see a different part of the world through a different lens. For those of us currently enjoying the Nordic Noir TV boom, modern Denmark is presented to us a grey and oppressive; in 1766 the royal palace possesses the same vibrancy as they did in England, France or other European countries of the period, the architecture and internal designs barely different.
There is quite a cast of characters whose exploits we follow with extreme interest and Nikolaj Arcel has assembled many of Denmark’s finest and most familiar faces to fulfil these roles. Mads Mikkelsen by now will hardly need an introduction and as ever he fits into the skin of Struensee with his inimitable ease. King Christians is a curious role, part comic, part tragic in lieu of his mental instability and Mikkel Følsgaard – familiar to most as Emil from TV’s The Legacy – handles each change of personality with subtle deftness and conviction.
Følsgaard’s co-star from The Legacy Trine Dyrholm (who plays Gro) gets to shine in the latter half of the film as the conniving and duplicitous Juliana Maria, resplendent in her collection of extravagant wigs, while another familiar face pops up in the form of Søren Malling, who is in just about everything Danish!
The only outsider in the main cast is Sweden’s Alicia Vikander, whose star has since risen in the wake of this film. As Caroline, she is both sympathetic yet robust for a young woman given very little quarter in a foreign land.
As far as lavish historical dramas go, A Royal Affair holds its own against the best of them, bolstered a juicy and fascinating story of romance, domestic and political intrigue and potent social commentary. The Danes have done it again!