Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Movie Review: A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affaere)

Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Folsgaard & Alicia Vikander

A Royal Affair (2012)
Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen and Mikkel Boe Folsgaard

A Royal Affair (Or: How the European Enlightenment Came to Denmark) narrows in on the illict relationship between a German-born doctor and the British-born queen of the Danes. How these two came to fall passionately in love -- at great risk to themselves -- is at the heart of director Nikolaj Arcel's moving historical drama, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the recent Oscars ceremony.

The film opens with a voiceover from Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), younger sister to England's King George III. Caroline's narration comes in the form of a revealing letter written to her two estranged children back in 1775, in the midst of her rapid fall from power. Caroline details how she came to be the new queen of Denmark -- as a 15-year-old princess married to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), a man who at first glance appears to be so emotionally unstable to the point of outright madness. Just as Caroline resigns herself to her fate as a sidelined queen overpowered by a dominant, wild husband, the tides start to shift in her favour. When the king's council seeks a doctor to properly diagnose and address Christian's mental instability, they recruit a small-town German-born doctor named Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Put off by the unconventional doctor at first, Caroline soon falls in love with the educated, free-thinking Struensee. The two embark on creating a series of social reforms, persistently bringing the European Enlightenment to Denmark -- a country that Caroline insists is still living in the "dark ages." They enact their reforms through the vulnerable Christian VII, who affectionately refers to his wife as "mother" and idolizes Dr. Struensee like a child to a parental figure. This strange love triangle (of sorts) scandalizes the court, causing the king's devoutly religious and conservative-minded council and his conniving stepmother, Juliane (Trine Dyrholm) to take extreme measures to bring about the utter disgrace of both Struensee and Caroline.

A Royal Affair benefits greatly from that fact that this historical event, and its bloody and tragic outcome, remains largely unknown to North Americans, in general. As a result, audiences are better able to envelope themselves in a world and situation that is unfamiliar to them -- this doesn't feel like your usual historical costume drama re-hash. 

Arcel's film also manages to breath life into its three central characters -- all are equally sympathetic in their own way. You yearn for each to find their own personal happiness, yet there's a shadow that hangs over each of their fates. It's rare to see historical figures painted in such a light -- none of the three  lead figures are perfect, far from. Nothing about their situation is black or white and, as a result, each character reveals their own grey areas: Is Caroline right to use her mentally unstable husband as a puppet king, much like his own council? Is it arrogant of Struensee to think he can change the minds of an entire nation in one fell swoop? And is Christian VII really a devious fiend as first portrayed, or is he really a lost young man not fit to be king and yearning for true friendship?
Vikander and Mikkelsen

With its lush cinematography (you'll want to book a flight to Denmark ASAP) and exquisite costumes, A Royal Affair may look like many other period pieces you've seen before, but where it truly excels is in its revelatory casting.

As Caroline, Vikander portrays the young queen as a strong-willed woman who follows her heart and bides her time before she can truly blossom into a prominent political figure. She's highly educated and is up-to-date on the latest news about Voltaire and Europe's Enlightenment. How refreshing to see such a strong central female figure and Vikander is lovely in the role. 

Mikkelsen is the brash and opinionated Struensee, a man who thinks his way is the right way -- other opinions be damned. He's drawn not only to Caroline's beauty, but her mind and strength of character. A man of the Enlightenment, Struensee strives to bring Denmark into a new world -- albeit while neglecting to realize the consequences of his actions in a country that largely doesn't identify with the European movement.

And, finally, there's Folsgaard as the irascible, yet strangely sympathetic, King Christian VII. Within the opening frames of the film you'd be hard pressed to find positive thing to say about the king. His attitude towards his young wife is appalling and his inability to effectively rule his own people is an embarrassment to Denmark. But, stick around long enough, and you see more of the person beneath the hot-headed exterior. Thanks to Folsgaard's fantastic performance, Christian goes from foul-mouthed brat to a frightened, lonely man trapped within an occupation at which he is incompetent. His reliance on Caroline and Struensee for comfort and entertainment invites a tragic element to the character of Christian and its all perfectly rendered by Folsgaard in his first film role (winner of the Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival, the Oscars missed out on nominating Folsgaard for Best Supporting Actor).

A Royal Affair is a beautifully lensed, powerful historical drama. And while its history is absolutely fascinating, it's the characters that will make you want to stay for the long haul.