Review: A Royal Affair (2011)

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Cast: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Country: Denmark | Sweden | Czech Republic
Genre: Drama | History | Romance
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: A Royal Affair is scheduled for release on November 9th

The success of The King’s Speech perhaps yet lingering on the selective committee’s mind, Denmark’s submission to the 85th Academy Awards offers another behind-the-scenes look at the life of a European monarch, focusing on the infamous love triangle that largely defined the reign of King Christian VII. Director Nikolaj Arcel makes courtly costume drama of A Royal Affair, dramatising in lush tones the illicit affair that blossomed between Caroline—Christian’s English bride—and Johann Friedrich Streunsee—his German physician and a secret revolutionary writer of the Enlightenment—and the overhaul and undermining of the Danish social structure that went with it.

Mads Mikkelsen is an assured choice for the role of Streunsee, his attention-commanding quietude a fitting embodiment of the man’s brooding desire to incite change. He carries about him the airs of a man contemptuous of all around, yet not without a degree of compassion for those caught in the wheels of the oppressive system.

Long-haired, perpetually bestubbled, imposingly gruff, Mads Mikkelsen is an assured choice for the role of Streunsee, his attention-commanding quietude a fitting embodiment of the man’s brooding desire to incite change. He carries about him the airs of a man contemptuous of all around, yet not without a degree of compassion for those caught in the wheels of the oppressive system. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the film is his relationship to Christian: the king is the embodiment of all Streunsee hates, yet his childlike innocence and the doctor’s humanity seems to suggest a fondness of sorts. Despite Streunsee’s overt, calculated manipulation of the king for his own means—or rather those of his nation and its working class—there is the suggestion of a fondness, a certain pity toward one so hopelessly disillusioned to the reality of the world.

If A Royal Affair has a significant issue, it’s the mismanagement of Christian’s character in the face of this sympathy, painting him the zany womaniser and petulant playboy whose mania labels him a character entirely deserving of the betrayal meted out to him. The zesty comedy the screenplay carries is expressed almost entirely through his whims, yet affording him only so caricatured a role detracts from the dramatic significance of the central love triangle, making it notably one-sided and thus losing the abundant moral complexities of, for instance, Anna Karenina, a film whose cuckold was just as sympathetic as the adulterers. It’s small wonder that Caroline opts to cheat on Christian: he does on her with great constancy and fervour.

Her rejection of Christian and his corrupt system when they view her solely as queen consort—the royal womb and little more—attests her vast dramatic agency; this is a most fascinating woman, whose invaluable role in shaping the course of her country’s history is more than worthy of such cinematic telling.

Abandoning any morsel of real sympathy where Christian is concerned, it falls to the central romance to constitute the bulk of the film’s emotional engagement, a task well handled in the magnificent partnership of Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander. Hers is a hugely strong character, arguably the film’s main protagonist, the events narrated by way of diaries written to her children to reveal to them the truth of her life. Her rejection of Christian and his corrupt system when they view her solely as queen consort—the royal womb and little more—attests her vast dramatic agency; this is a most fascinating woman, whose invaluable role in shaping the course of her country’s history is more than worthy of such cinematic telling. In many ways her love of Streunsee is a love of his ideals, his radicalism, and of the new Denmark, freed from the shackles of an outmoded social hierarchy.

A Royal Affair is a film far more drama than costume, the frills of its period detail additional to—rather than in lieu of—the engaging depth of human relationships at its core. Beyond all political aspirations and all historical loyalties, this is a love story on an epic scale, the moving tale of a forbidden romance that endures no matter the penalty. That it rings so true amidst the distractions of flawed characterisation and underdeveloped moral implications is a testament to the work of Mikkelsen and Vikander, and to the assured abilities of Arcel to construct resonant emotion amidst a minefield of historical abstraction.

[notification type=”star”]78/100 ~ GOOD. A Royal Affair is a film far more drama than costume, the frills of its period detail additional to—rather than in lieu of—the engaging depth of human relationships at its core.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.