It's been costume-drama time at the movies recently, and although I've been conscientiously avoiding Anna Karenina out respect for Tolstoy's novel, I should probably see director Joe Wright's latest Keira Knightley showcase pretty soon. Maybe it will turn out to be as satisfying as A Royal Affair, the thoughtful and somber new film from Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel.
The film takes place in Denmark during the 1760s and 1770s. During this time, the Danish king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), acting under the suggestions/orders of his friend and personal physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelson), forced his backwards and repressive country to briefly embrace Enlightenment ideas about society, justice, and personal freedom by passing numerous social reforms. Because this forward-thinking utopia lasts such a short time before it is dismantled by the powers that used to be, the film is best described as a historical tragedy illuminated by natural light, candlelight, and the ephemeral flames of political triumph and personal ecstasy.
The story is told from the point of view of Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), the young Englishwoman sent to marry Denmark's oddball king. Caroline's first meeting with Christian on a country road immediately reminded me of the doomed royal coupling at the heart of Josef von Sternberg's deliriously outré 1934 masterpiece The Scarlet Empress, which starred Marlene Dietrich as a German princess shipped off to Russia to marry the crazy grand duke. Both films are sharp enough to capture the precise moment when romantic expectations are dashed by heart-shriveling reality. In A Royal Affair, this occurs when Caroline first glimpses Christian's head within the crotch of a tree. Christian's nervous twitter and casual cruelty immediately set him apart as a paradigm of royal inbreeding.
Naturally, this couple doesn't get along too well. But Caroline is gradually drawn to Struensee, a handsome and suave politician who notices her fondling his copy of Rousseau and woos her by sending her his anonymously written anti-establishment pamphlets. Struensee and the queen's flirtation reaches its apex during a dance sequence, where they circle each other in slow-motion, so enraptured that — in a nice expressionist touch — they start to hear music different from the rest of the guests. Later that night, and with the aid of a secret passageway — another baroque detail purloined from The Scarlet Empress — the tryst is on.
Naturally, Struensee seduces Christian as well, appealing to the king's love of the theater by cannily quoting Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays. Ever the activist, Struensee exploits the trust of his play-besotted patient and confidant. He eventually becomes Christian's political adviser and script doctor, writing and passing new laws under the guise of giving Christian a chance (by reciting the lines Struensee writes for him) to literally play a major role on a national stage.
Although A Royal Affair never approaches the splendid visual excesses of von Sternberg's film, it is just as obsessed with the deception and duplicity necessary for people to achieve self-government and larger political change. Not bad for a bodice-ripper.
A Royal Affair
Opening Friday, December 7th