Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Alicia Vikander, David Dencik, Trine Dyrholm, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Cyron Bjørn Melville and Laura Bro.
Writers: Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel; based upon the novel Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Running time: 137 minutes.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Sat 9 Jun 6.15pm; Fri 15 Jun 4.15pm.
Arthouse audiences craving the grand costume dramas of yore will be camping out for A Royal Affair, the gloriously-realized recounting of a short-lived period in Danish social reform as told through the eyes and loins of those in power. Director Nikolaj Arcel takes no great risks in his loosely-fictionalized version of events little-known outside of the region, but he maximises every potent element of the story whenever possible. A Royal Affair is a sumptuous tale of corseted desire, political malfeasance and complex immoralities.
Structured as to be the recollections of Queen Caroline Mathilda (a luminous Alicia Vikander) for the children to which she was denied access, the titular tryst is one that develops between her and German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Introduced whilst doing some pro-bono healing in the dank halls of a community hospital, Dr Struensee is a noble figure though not of the upper class; Mikkelsen conveys movie-star magnetism in a role that all but consumes everything else in the frame with him, which is both a good and bad thing. As soon as his chiselled cheek bones and imposing figure enter the film, there is no doubt he’ll bed the leading lady and exert influence over the young, slightly loopy King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, his high-pitched random giggle and eccentricity reminiscent of Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus).
As a man of the people, and flush with the confidence one oozes having seduced monarchy, Struensee begins to exert a gentle influence over the laws of the land. Upping taxes on the rich, dismantling serfdom and increasing expenditure on social infrastructure are just a few of the changes he inspires the King to demand of his subordinates. Of course, these are wildly unpopular with the wealthy, who leap at the opportunity to oust the doctor when the secret love between Caroline and Struensee is revealed.
In addition to the photogenic charms of Vikander and Mikkelsen, the production is one steeped in the opulence of the period and the gorgeous, untouched countryside of the day (it features one of the most beautiful title-card sequences in recent memory). The passionate embraces of the two illicit lovebirds are tastefully done, but don’t skimp on detail; the overall portrayal of sex, both good and bad (Christian is grossly ineffectual, even brutish, his first night with Caroline), is typically open-minded in its Euro-cinema way.
Having triumphed at the Berlinale, where it took home thoroughly deserved statuettes for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, Arcel’s classically old-fashioned candlelight-and-carriages take on the bosom-heaving, aristocratic love triangle is a compelling if slightly overlong effort. Not that fans of the genre will mind if the film sags a little in parts; in fact, they may not want it to end at all.