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A Royal Affair review

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A period drama that's more dark, in-depth character study than light-hearted romp...

Review of 'A Royal Affair' (2012), featuring Mads Mikkelsen

The team behind the original Danish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo reunite for period drama A Royal Affair. It is the age of enlightenment in Europe, but in Denmark the nobility rule by oppression, supported by strong religious forces. Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is married off to King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) before she even meets him. Having never left England before, Caroline is excited by the prospect of a “new life” and new language but disappointed to discover Christian has little interest in her.

When they first meet, the King is hiding behind a tree and initial interactions are believably awkward. It soon becomes clear, Christian is more than just disinterested when he orders her to “Move [her] fat little thighs and have a seat”. Described as “sick and tormented”, Christian certainly does enough to try anyone's patience – unashamedly sleeping with prostitutes, loudly reciting lines in unison with actors during performances and chatting with friends during sex. “Excessive masturbation” is believed to be the cause of many of his problems but it soon becomes clear strained family relations and his own desperate need for recognition are perhaps more to blame.

Once Caroline becomes pregnant, she no longer bothers to uphold the facade of a successful marriage, refusing the King his nightly visitation rights to her chamber. Nick-naming her “mother” and sacking her favourite maid in retaliation are his last truly detestable acts. Once Christian hires a new physician everything changes – Caroline has a new lover to keep her sane and Christian has someone to aid and advise him. The arrival of this new physician is almost enough to make Christian likeable and inspires him to dissolve the Royal Council who've previously rejected all of his free-thinking ideas. With the council gone, Christian is able to suggest his own ground-breaking laws and public services, including his idea of having carriages to go around the city picking up people who are too drunk to find their way home.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Johann Friedrich, the influential personal physician to the King – a small town doctor anonymously writing radical papers whose father was a priest. Put forward by dukes who've fallen from favour, Johann must champion their cause if he gets the job. His interview with Christian is the funniest scene in this fascinating historical period of Danish history. Quoting literary works at each other, Christian and Johann quickly form a bond and come to an understanding. Literature also connects Johann and Caroline and early philosophical discussions about Rousseau prompt the beginnings of a passionate affair. Despite Johann betraying and using Christian, he also helps him to feel powerful and in control for the first time in his life by scripting proposals for new legal reforms for him.

Aside from captivating performances, A Royal Affair is interesting for the insights it gives into late 18th century living. Early on, Caroline is told by her mother she'll be deemed as a great success if the King visits her bedchamber on the first evening. On arrival to Copenhagen many of her books are confiscated under Danish censorship laws. A sub-plot involving Christian's vindictive stepmother and half-brother highlight how conniving the royal family were. After Christian appoints Johann, Denmark becomes a pioneering country introducing 100s of new laws creating orphanages for children, abolishing corporal punishment/censorship etc. Interestingly, Punch and Judy shows seem to have acted as an early form of today's gossip column, blatantly depicting the Queen and Johann’s affair.

Director, Nikolaj Arcel, bases the film on Bodil Steensen-Leth's erotic novel, Prinsesse af Blodet. As the book is written from the Queen's perspective, a female voice-over weaves the story together, initially claiming she must try to remember Johann and tell us about the things [they] did together. It soon becomes clear who this “us” is when it's revealed she's writing to her estranged children, keen to tell them: “the truth before it’s too late”. Flitting back and forth to her letter writing reminds us this is a reflective tale and one that will end badly.

Although A Royal Affair is a lengthy film it's one that never drags; An excellent central trio hold our interest. Mikkelsen is brilliant as Christian’s over-confident puppeteer but it is Folsgaard who deserves recognition for pulling off a difficult role in managing to ensure an almost wholly detestable character remains sympathetic. Childlike innocence combines with moments of brutal insanity to depict Christian’s unpredictable character – although mentally unstable, he's primarily governed by a desperate need for acceptance and love. Exploring themes of loyalty and absolute trust, the Royal Affair in the film is predictably doomed. Despite a depressing end for our heroes, the final message avoids being bleak, instead emphasising hope lying within future generations.

4 stars

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writer: Bodil Steensen-Leth, Rasmus Heisterberg, Nikolaj Arcel

Studio: Metrodome

Release Date: June 15 2012

Running Time: 137 mins

Certificate: 15

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Alicia Vikander, Laura Bro


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