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BERLIN – A gripping chapter of European history is recounted with elegance, intelligence and clarity in Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s sumptuous costume drama, A Royal Affair, which examines the clash between liberal idealism and reactionary self-interest in a meaty tale of romance, tragedy and court intrigue. Conventional in style and structure without being too starchy, the intimately focused epic has been presold to most major territories, including to Magnolia in the U.S.
Arcel and regular screenwriting partner Rasmus Heisterberg have whittled down a wide tract of events and ideas into an accessible and surprisingly brisk 2¼ hours. (In addition to Arcel’s films, King’s Game, Island of Lost Souls and Truth About Men, the pair collaborated on the first and best of the original-language Stieg Larsson adaptations, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) This is a fascinating story that is no doubt widely known in Denmark but will be new and suspenseful to all but the most scholarly history eggheads.
The film is driven by riveting performances from Mads Mikkelsen, best known internationally as the villain Le Chiffre in Daniel Craig’s Bond debut, Casino Royale; and lovely rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander, next up in Joe Wright’s Tom Stoppard-scripted Anna Karenina.
It opens near the close of the 18th century as reforms are sweeping Europe, with intellectuals and free-thinkers wrestling control away from the nobility. Something rotten still endures in the state of Denmark, where the King’s council continues to favor the wealthy estate owners while ignoring the appalling conditions of the poor.
Raised in England, Caroline Mathilde (Vikander) is packed off to Denmark while still in her teens and married to her imbecile cousin King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard).
Prancing around snickering like Beavis and Butthead, the psychologically unstable monarch is so threatened by Caroline’s intellectual and artistic superiority that, with a gentle nudge from the scheming dowager queen Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm), he mocks and humiliates his young wife. But she does her royal duty nonetheless, delivering him a son, who later became King Frederick VI. Her confessional letter to her children, written in exile before her death, frames the action in voiceover.
Once Caroline has produced an heir, she slams shut the bedroom door, prompting bored Christian to go traveling around Europe. The German Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen) is hired as his personal physician. A progressive adherent to the then-radical principles of the Enlightenment, Johann gains the King’s trust, quickly learning how to humor him, to defuse his moods and irrational whims. When they return to Denmark, Johann finds a like-minded ally in the Queen and a clandestine romance begins.
Christian is infantilized by the King’s council, which requires his signature on legislation but discourages any attempt to understand the laws being passed. Conspiring with Caroline, Johann invents a game for the theatrically inclined King, giving him a script for council meetings in order to push through reforms that chip away at societal injustice. Emboldened by his more active role in the proceedings, Christian demands that Johann be admitted to the council. And when the rigid old guard blocks that move, he dismisses them, making himself and the doctor Denmark’s sole legislators.
All this is related with lucidity and speed. There’s a real exhilaration to the transitional period as reforms are passed, providing inoculation against disease in public hospitals, freedom of speech and expression, and the abolishment of censorship, torture and corporal punishment.
While the characters might appear black and white, they all have their ambiguities, particularly Johann, who uses Christian’s blind trust and love for him to further his own political agenda, albeit one for the greater good. The romantic triangle is sharply drawn, with Christian seeming to re-evaluate himself as he becomes part of the power structure and not just its frivolous figurehead.
To some extent, Johann starts adopting the methods of the council he so despised, shouting “Just sign it” in response to the King’s questions. Eventually, he removes the need for Christian’s signature on documents, giving himself total jurisdiction over state affairs. But this earns him dangerous enemies among the aristocracy, whose income has diminished and taxes have increased to provide services for the poor. Rumors that Caroline’s second child was fathered by Johann feed the unrest.
As Caroline observes in her letter, such frantic change would inevitably provoke a backlash, and the film becomes slightly more burdened by the density of its plotting as it moves toward the eventual downfall and betrayal of Johann and the Queen.
That said, the story remains enthralling right up to its moving final act, which illustrates the regression of Denmark but at the same time points the way again to a better future. Without getting too deep into political ideology, the movie makes succinct points about the path to progress in Northern Europe being inextricably linked to the separation of religion and nobility from government.
Performances from the large ensemble are solid, but the three leads in particular are compelling, each of them playing richly conflicted characters. Vikander is intense and incandescent, and Mikkelsen’s sober demeanor lightens around her, his face visibly softening. The feelings of genuine tenderness toward Christian from Johann and even Caroline are beautifully sketched. Foelsgaard slyly keeps the audience guessing about the extent to which Christian is aware he’s being manipulated and accepts it as part of the pact of their friendship. There’s unexpected poignancy in his characterization.
The strength of the script is its focus on events not as historical chronicle but as the direct experience of these three complicated central characters.
In the movie’s early scenes it’s clear that Arcel is aiming for a subtly contemporary edge in the performances and shooting style, and the film could have benefited from a more forceful push in that direction. But Rasmus Videnaek’s cinematography strikes a fine balance between stateliness and agility. The handsome production design and costumes by Niels Sejer and Manon Rasmussen, respectively, are major assets, as is the full-bodied score by Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort. Executive produced by Lars von Trier through his Zentropa company, Arcel’s film in no way reinvents the historical drama, but it honors a fine tradition in European film.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard, Trine Dyrholm, David Dencik, Bent Mejding, Cyron Melville, Harriet Walter
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenwriters: Rasmus Heisterberg, Nikolaj Arcel
Producers: Louise Vesth, Sisse Graum Jorgensen, Meta Louise Foldager
Executive producers: Lars von Trier, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Peter Garde
Director of photography: Rasmus Videbaek
Production designer: Niels Sejer
Music: Gabriel Yared, Cyrille Aufort
Costume designers: Manon Rasmussen
Editors: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, Kasper Leick
No rating, 137 minutes
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