[Review] – A Royal Affair

19 Nov

Title: A Royal Affair
Year: 2012
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Writers: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Følsgaard
MPAA Rating: R, sexual content and some violent images
Runtime: 137 min
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Metacritic: 72

A Royal Affair is a film that came highly recommended to me, not only is it the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar but it also stars Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who’s finally getting his due after winning Best Actor at Cannes for The Hunt, getting the titular role in NBC‘s upcoming Hannibal TV series and starring in this movie. He’s always been quite good, it’s just that now he’s finally getting the attention he deserves for it.

Here he plays Johann Friedrich Struensee, a gifted and idealistic man who serves as the royal physician during the reign of King Christian VII of Denmark. Set amongst this 18th century backdrop A Royal Affair is all about this terribly juicy romantic triangle that ensues between this young physician, an insane ruler and the young and brave Queen Caroline Mathilda. And it just plain worked for me, I thought the production values were fantastic and the performances were uniformly terrific, helping to shine a light on one of those little-known periods in history that always end up feeling fascinating and wholly engrossing.

Because really, this is the type of story that deserves to get a movie about it, especially one like this one which, as delivered by director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel, is amazing. I mean that because even though you get this polished and well-made period piece you never feel as though it’s just bogged down in the historical business of it all, instead showing a restraint and focussing on using its settings to bring forth this epic romance and achieve this kind of intellectual depth in the process.

The movie also proposes that it was Struensee who pretty much inspired the French revolution, always toying around with the ideas of Enlightenment in a nation that still clings so much to its religiously superstitious backbone. Indeed, you get the sense in the scenes between Struensee and the Queen that their courtship is one that is more concerned with stimulations of the mind than of the body. She falls in love with his ideas as much as anything else, and uses her influence with the King to have those ideas find their way into Denmark’s politics and essentially change the history of the country by doing so.

The King is seen as mentally deranged, always acting in such infantile ways that his innocence is kind of endearing as we see him being used by his Court just to have a figure to show to the public but which they could then dismiss or mold to their wishes in the privacy of their political chambers. Struensee sees this and uses it to his advantage, getting the King to use his powers to their fullest extent for the first time, ordering reforms to the nation to the chagrin of the powerless Court. He’s the power behind the Queen, who’s in turn the power behind the King.

It’s great that we got Mr. Mikkelsen to play Struensee, by the way. You immediately buy him as true leading man, which is no doubt why he’s getting all the success he’s been getting, and you’re absolutely convinced that he is indeed a man of intellectual prowess, even if he doesn’t go about giving grand speeches. Alicia Vikander, who I hadn’t seen in anything else before (but who has a role in Joe Wright‘s Anna Karenina, which I’m dying to see) is also very, very good here, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her crossover to more mainstream success. Mikkel Følsgaard, who plays the King, has to be given props for making us buy into his character at times as a villainous figure only to then feel quite a lot of sympathy for him after wee see him being used as a puppet.

The period detail is all there but, like I said, I loved it that it wasn’t hitting us over the head with it. I’m actually all for those immersive historical experiences and this film is long enough that it would potentially afford that, but I thought it was right for what we got that it was concerned with making itself easily digestible and immediately satisfying and not burdening us with too much context. We’re here for the characters, after all, and their nuanced complexities are best explored without any additional baggage.

We know from the start that something goes wrong, seeing as how the Queen is narrating from a letter she’s writing to her children from exile to explain her version of things. The fact that Mr. Arcel still keeps us interested in how exactly that outcome came to be is utterly brilliant, giving us this melodrama that touches upon all the universal themes like love and power while giving us a trio of characters that will have our allegiances kind of morphing as it all goes along. I really, really loved the effect this movie ultimately had and I’d imagine an Oscar nomination should be in its cards.

The one thing I will say against it, and this is really nitpicking based on personal preferences, is the lack of any real physical action. I get that the affair is sensed to have happened based more on idealism than on any real sense of lust, and we get the impression that they fall in love with their ideas and with what they can do with each other more than with each other, but still, I wanted something more heated than what we ultimately got here. But then again, like I said, those are personal preferences, maybe I was expecting too much from the title or promotional material.

Grade: B+


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