By William Wolf


Writer-director Nikolaj Arcel has created a sumptuous Danish historical film that springs to life and bristles with romance, intrigue, passion for reform and an overall fascinating portrait of events in Denmark in the late 18th century. “A Royal Affair,” which won awards at the Berlin Festival and was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is Denmark’s entry for the foreign film Oscar race. I wish it well.

I have checked the actual history involved, and as outrageous as some of the events seem, on screen, they were even more over-the-top in real life. One is drawn into the story that involves a new queen, a mentally unbalanced king, and a reformist doctor to the queen who tries to democratize the then authoritarian country. The screenplay is co-written by the director and Rasmus Heisterberg, and they have done a great job in juggling the many components that enliven the story and build an intense drama fleshed out by excellent performances.

Alicia Vikander is lovely as Queen Caroline Mathilda of England who journeys to Denmark to marry King Christian VII. She is full of anticipation and joy at her opportunity, but these are soon dashed by reality. The king is expertly played by Mikkel Boe Folsgaard with a balance of showing his childish, erratic behavior yet desire to be a good king. The monarch is known for excessive masturbation and frequent reveling with prostitutes. He is brutish in performing his perfunctory conjugal duty with Queen Caroline, who distances herself from him as he does from her. It’s not a happy royal situation, compounded by the king’s stepmother’s disdain for the queen.

The situation grows complicated when German physician and secret pamphleteer in support of The Enlightenment, Johann Friedrich Struensee, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is appointed doctor to the queen. Mikkelsen, who has a great face enhanced by close-ups, is a mesmerizing actor. Streunsee, in his relationship with the king, ingratiates himself and manipulates himself into a position of power, which is resented by the governing clique who raid the treasury in support of their affluent lifestyles.

Struensee and the queen are attracted to one another and the film is especially successful as it builds their steamy feelings, delicately but surely, until they finally start making love. The gossips realize what is happening and difficulty arises when the queen becomes pregnant. Since it is known that she and the king haven’t been sleeping together, Struensee must arrange for the king to perform his husbandly duties so that the child will appear to be his.

Meanwhile, vast changes take place in the country as the king, under Struensee’s assertion of power, pushes reforms that include forbidding the mistreatment of surfs, fostering of free speech and other enlightened changes. How will it all end?

The plot unfolds with vigor and suspense. All of this is done with striking cinematic effectiveness, from settings to costumes. The result is an astonishingly creative historical drama than ranks among the best of its genre. One gets caught up in the epic, which achieves a reality thanks to the direction and the flesh-and-blood characterizations by the stars and the supporting cast. A Magnolia Pictures release.


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