Hot for Knowledge : Just like today, ‘A Royal Affair’ shows’ politics made strange bedfellows in the 19th century too

If you waited ages and ages to get in to see “A Royal Affair” at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival you may be disappointed to know you only had to wait a few more weeks to skip the lines. And if you didn’t get in to see it, well here’s your chance. Nikolag Arcel’s lavish costume drama follows the real-life affair that happened between the English-born Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark, and the King’s physician, Dr. Johann Struensee. It’s the kind of sweeping film history-lovers love, but it’s also a complex tale of good intentions and hubris on top of its love-affair plot.

The time is the 18th century, and the place is one of the last European countries trying to stave off the rising tide of the Enlightenment. And we soon see why writers like Voltaire and Rousseau questioned a system that could lead to the childish and insane King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) running a country. Or at least pretending to: the true power resided in the king’s council, who handed the king laws to rubber stamp, protecting their own interests and damning the peasants.

His new Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander) believes she’s achieved a sort of fairy tale when she lands in Copenhagen, but she soon learns the king would rather booze and carouse with prostitutes.

In steps Dr. Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who aces his job interview with the King by sharing quotes from that forbidden writer William Shakespeare. Secretly a writer of anti-monarchy, pro-democracy tracts, the doctor finds himself in a choice position: able to change the country by using the Queen and the easily manipulated King to push through reforms. At the same time, he and the Queen begin their affair, turned on as much by each other as by the ideals of the Enlightenment.

The second half of the film descends into tragedy. Even the Queen, whose epistolary voiceover frames the movie tells us: “We thought we had it all.” Doesn’t she watch movie trailers? That phrase never bodes well.

The affair is actually the least interesting part of the film. Both Johann and the Queen are frustrated by their position in life, and one gets the sense that this dalliance would have happened at some time with somebody in the court. A woman has needs too, you know. Two hundred years later and these same characters would be getting excited chatting with each other over Guy Debord books in a cafe, ready to go join a student march before marching into bed with each other.

More interesting are the characters’ failings, sketched in with a subtler hand that the broad characterizations of the king’s enemies on the court. Johann actually likes the king, even while he’s using him as a mouthpiece. However, he soon takes his position for granted. Mr. Folsgaard’s performance as the king at first appears cartoonish, but deepens until we feel sad for him. He’s less insane than bored and petulant.

The film is both complex and simplistic. Scenes echo each other throughout, as when the king is forced to sign laws and decrees. In the end, the filmmaker meant for us to fully understand the irony of a “man of the people” becoming a victim of the mob.

“A Royal Affair” is sturdy, well executed (no pun intended!) historical fare, providing much to mull over, including how far we may or may not have come since the Enlightenment.

‘A Royal Affair’
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen,
Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard
Length: 137 mins.
Rating: R for sexual content and some violent images
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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