At the dawn of a new Denmark
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 16, 2012
It has been a good couple of weeks for costume dramas. With “Lincoln” and “Anna Karenina,” the kind of period-accurate historical films that so often have the personality and verve of waxed fruit have instead exhibited rare vigor and vision.
“A Royal Affair,” Nikolaj Arcel’s fascinating portrait of 18th-century Denmark, is no exception. The true story of a progressive physician who brought Enlightenment values to the country by way of his friendship with an addled young king, this absorbing drama epitomizes what it takes to make history come alive on screen, creating the sense of an immediate, firsthand atmosphere while never getting bogged down in fussy detail for its own sake.
And never underestimate good casting. Mads Mikkelsen -- best known as the sinuous James Bond nemesis in “Casino Royale” -- plays the complicated hero of “A Royal Affair,” a Hamburg doctor named Johann Struensee who, when he is fetched to treat King Christian VII, becomes the mercurial leader’s trusted adviser, political ally and best friend. The fact that Struensee eventually falls in love with Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander) makes “A Royal Affair” a bodice ripper as well as a history lesson. But the title could just as easily pertain to the relationship between the two men, whose friendship and its eventual demise are every bit as headstrong, contradictory, passionate and tragic as the romance that plays out on its edges.
Mikkelsen easily proves why he’s Denmark’s leading leading man, playing Struensee with a combination of reserve and quiet sex appeal, and Vikander -- delivering a one-two punch this week with this film and her turn as the angelic Kitty in “Anna Karenina” -- possesses a natural, earthy beauty that is well suited to her character’s journey from innocence to desperation.
But it’s Mikkel Boe Folsgaard as Christian who steals “A Royal Affair” from under the attractive couple’s noses in a performance that lends the often incoherent, often abusive monarch surprising sympathy and pathos.
As it chronicles a society’s debate between being guided by religious dogma or reason, “A Royal Affair” often resonates with contemporary political relevance. But even appreciated simply as a little-known chapter of European history, it proves consistently engrossing, edifying and affecting.
Contains sexual content and some violent images. In Danish with English subtitles.