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17 June 2012

A Very Scandi Scandal

If you are looking for a fun, light-hearted movie to round off the weekend, don't go to see Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære). But it may well fit the bill if you fancy a thought-provoking, well-acted, tragic movie depicting one of the most dramatic periods of Danish history. There are elements of La Reine Margot and of any film depicting Henry VIII's relationship with his second and fifth wives. Not to mention The Madness of King George, whose protagonist is the sister of our heroine in A Royal Affair.

It is 1766 and a young British princess (Alicia Vikander), whose name we only discover is Caroline Mathilde almost two hours into the film, is being shipped off to marry King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). He is supposed to be charming and fun, and Caroline is optimistic for her future. No one mentions the fact that he also suffers from various symptoms of mental illness, and is erratic, wildly promiscuous and, according to the movie at least, obsessed with masturbation. The first years of the marriage do not go well--Caroline is repulsed and scared by her husband in the bedroom and cannot forgive his need to sate his desires elsewhere. Nonetheless, she does her duty and the future Frederik VI is soon on his way.

Denmark, like much of Europe at this time, is in a period of great change. The country is ruled by the conservative elite, who take advantage of the fact that the king will sign any document if it means he can return to the brothel sooner. But the Enlightenment is underway and those who support it manage to get Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a small-town doctor with big, revolutionary ideas, a job as the king's personal physician. Struensee becomes the king's closest friend and confidant and is soon able to use his influence to start pushing through radical reform that he hopes will make the country a better, and fairer, place. Naturally, the conservative ruling council and the king's stepmother (Trine Dyrholm), who wants her own son on the throne, are unimpressed and plot to remove this dangerous upstart from government.

Their job is made easier by the fact that Strunsee and Caroline fall in love; ironically, the king tells Struensee to try to make Caroline more fun. They are attracted to each other but they also bond over Rousseau and it is clear that the queen is on Team Enlightenment, which means she can also push through some radical reforms of her own. For a while, Caroline feels as though she has it all: her husband is happy--and less erratic--with his new BFF, she is doing things that will make Denmark a better place, and she has a thoughtful and attractive lover. When she finds out she is pregnant, she manages to persuade her husband to sleep with her early enough that he wouldn't doubt the child's paternity, but as the queen and Struensee become more confident in their successes, they also become more careless. Spoiler alert: the ending is pretty bleak, although the closing title cards hint at a faint note of hope for the future.

Mikkelsen acts his heart out as the 'nobody' who goes on to become, arguably, Denmark's most powerful man. Struensee isn't perfect--he is often patronising to the king and is later guilty of manipulating the king and using him as a pawn in the same way he criticised the king's earlier advisors of doing; then, of course, he betrays the king completely by having an affair with his wife and lying about it. Mikkelsen makes him seem flawed but sympathetic. Meanwhile, Vikander does her Keira Knightley best as the doomed queen: all sad, brown eyes, resigned to her fate. A Royal Affair is a bit of a weepy, but there is plenty of drama (plus the usual brothels and balls) and some big ideas that keep things moving nicely throughout its 2h35 length. The period depicted in the film spans only about six years, but it feels a lot more epic. Go and see it, but be sure to take a handkerchief.

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