I love palace intrigue. If the naughty goings-on of Prince Harry this summer in Las Vegas were any indication, so does the rest of the free world. We enthrall ourselves to the naughty happenings of royalty, going back to the age of the Roman Empire. Even as print is a dying medium, it still makes great copy in our era, especially if we can screen-cap, Tweet, Facebook-update (is this a verb now?) eyewitness accounts in real time. Into this state of affairs comes an excellent new film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Nikolaj Arcel’s Danish costume drama A Royal Affair (original title: En kongelig affære).
This Affair is set in Copenhagen and continental Europe during the 1760s and 1770s. Young Princess Caroline of England (luminous newcomer Alicia Vikander, who also plays Kitty in the much-anticipated new version of Anna Karenina) is married off for political reasons to King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard). Christian is a poorly educated, foppish dilettante who the entire court believes to be mad. He has frequent outbursts that include announcements at dinner to the entire court of when he intends to sleep with his wife. Once he has tired of her and she has produced an heir, he gives himself over to every vice possible and frequents brothels, oblivious to public opinion and the scandal sheets. It is believed in a number of historical biographies, as well as in this film, that he suffered from an undiagnosed medical condition that may have been schizophrenia. (One doctor’s prognosis is that his condition was brought about by excessive masturbation.) In any event, the ruling powers make the disinterested king sign off laws, orders and decrees that are to their advantage. It suits them that the king is perceived to be a madman.
Into this unhappy royal marriage comes Dr. Johann Struensee (a quietly smoldering Mads Mikkelsen). Despite being the son of a prominent conservative minister, Struensee is a man of reason and science, not of faith. Appointed royal physician, he is also the secret author of some “subversive” writings proposing such radical ideas as abolishment of serfdom and peasantry, enforced inoculation, and other reforms that were counterintuitive to the nobility’s interest. Struensee and Caroline bond over their mutual frustration with Christian’s infidelity, their belief that nobility abuse of the masses should end, and an attraction borne out of loneliness and a meeting of the minds. Caroline’s discovery of Rousseau’s dangerous philosophical treatises on the new social contract in Struensee’s library appears to seal the deal.
Struensee soon proves himself to be an able and astute observer of what Denmark needs to reform. Eventually, and much to the consternation of vengeful nobles, he persuades Christian to dissolve the state council and together they form a ruling class of two. This true story takes place in the Age of Enlightenment, which is the real catalyst of progress. Struensee and Christian introduce ideas radical to the age, such as lifting the ban on state censorship, greater access to health care, the abolition of serfdom, and additional reforms that promise to deliver Denmark into an Enlightened and progressive state. The nobility are put out by these changes and quietly sharpen their knives, waiting for some salacious piece of innuendo with which to remove Struensee. In one hilarious example of reform, Christian descries the lack of proper sanitation in the city and declares a “war on shit” in which he triples the number of waste collectors. There’s a line from Hamlet that is brilliantly used here. (You know which one it is.)
The film doesn’t hesitate to put the king, his queen and his doctor on morally ambiguous ground. Struensee helps alleviate the king’s condition as best he can and encourages him to become a truly groundbreaking, fair-minded ruler, but he also sleeps with his wife and is a political radical (at least he was for the times). Morality and ethics aren’t applied in broad unambiguous stripes here, making even the exemplary Struensee an antihero at best. Not even King Christian is a devil, he’s simply so overwhelmed at his lot in life that he holds himself captive to his most base desires at the sake of his own dignity.
It is a testament to Følsgaard’s work that what could have been a caricature is instead a measured study of a man trapped by the confines of his mental and emotional issues, trapped within his body without a prognosis for his various maladies. They say comedy is harder to play than drama, but arguably the greatest challenge is doing both in the same performance to develop narrative arc and character, subtly and without exaggeration. It is possibly the best interpretation of mad royalty since Nigel Hawthorne’s master class in The Madness of King George. The delicate balance of humour and pathos earned Følsgaard Best Actor honours at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. He should look forward to receiving further recognition.
Recognition should also be given to Vikander for her portrait of a queen desperately locked in a life of unhappiness, knowing she is a laughingstock for marrying a madman. She exudes intellect that thinly veils a repressed sensuality. She successfully makes you believe that the Queen never fell in love until after her marriage. Mikkelson, as Struensee, is on a roll this year. He pairs quietly intense work here with his soul-destroying performance in The Hunt, for which he won one of the other major film festival acting prizes (Cannes). Mikkelson will soon star as the new Dr. Lecter in the forthcoming television series Hannibal. The trio constitute a locked-and-loaded triangle in which there’s no one to root for entirely, but you just wish them all well despite the cruelty of time and circumstance.
A Royal Affair is the Danish official entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is currently playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival and is scheduled for limited release in North American beginning on November 9, 2012.