by Angelo Muredda A Royal Affair isn't exactly Barry Lyndon, but as period pieces go, it's surprisingly robust, the rare costume drama that takes a genuine interest in how the unruly personalities of rulers and politicians determine a nation's political outcomes as much as the ideologies they represent. It doesn't seem so promising at first, beginning as it does with a title card that sets the scene with ominous overtones. "It is the Age of Enlightenment," we're told in the tasteful font of "Masterpiece Theatre", and while the rest of Europe has gone through a massive philosophical and ethical shift with respect to its perception of peasants and landed gentry, Denmark has remained an outpost of the old, thanks in no small part to the conservative court that pulls the strings of mad young King Christian (Mikkel Følsgaard, Best Actor winner at Berlin). Enter his blushing new Welsh bride and our narrator, Caroline (Alicia Vikander), a revolutionary intellect--her book collection doesn't pass the Danish board of censors--who flounders in the country she now rules until things are livened by Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a German doctor and secret pamphleteer of the Enlightenment sent to bring sense back to the erratic King.
The set-up is worryingly similar to The King's Speech, but director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel, punching in a new weight class after his clunky adaptation of Stieg Larrson's first Millennium book, isn't much interested in Struensee's friendship with Christian, skipping right to the intrigue of having a radical smuggled away at court, whispering revolutionary sentiment in the impressionable sovereign's ear. While Struensee's romantic attachment to Caroline, his political rise, and his inevitable decline all unfold in a straightforward manner, with everyone marching on to his or her fate as required, Arcel nicely draws his characters such that their ends feel like the consequence of onscreen actions rather than mere accidents of historical record. Struensee, for instance, must fall, savaged as a foreigner who insidiously slipped himself between the Queen's sheets, but the suggestion here is that his failure was largely one of temperament.
Mikkelsen, consequently, has quite a bit to do here for the star of a historical epic, usually a thankless job. An academic with a theoretical interest in the ideals of the philosophes, his Struensee nevertheless has little use for actual people and is never seen engaging with his subjects in anything other than a cursory manner once he comes to power by proxy. There's something chilling about his miscalculated plea to his fellow citizens that he is just like them, which rolls off his tongue rather haughtily for a friend of the people. Strong as Mikkelsen is, though, it's Følsgaard who steals the show as the pathetic sovereign, a creepy child who loves his dog more than his wife, and wants nothing more than to be told what to do, then claim divine insight. Programme: Gala Presentation