A Royal Affair

June 23, 2012
Screen shot 2012-06-27 at 6.21.32 PM

There’s something well made in the state of Denmark. A Royal Affair is one of those films that never seems to lose its way, or take flight. Danish director, Nikolaj Arcel, has gone about his task with consummate professionalism, for which one might be thankful in light of the awful mess Sofia Coppola made of Marie Antoinette (2006). A costume drama is still a drama, despite the wigs and fineries.

There are certain similarities to Marie Antoinette in the story of the young Englishwoman, Caroline Mathilde, daughter of the Prince of Wales, who was betrothed to the Danish King Christian VII. Far from her native Austria, Marie Antoinette found herself saddled with a timid Louis XVI, who took forever to consummate the marriage. Caroline has to deal with the realisation that her royal husband is completely loopy – child-like; by turns violent or cowardly; prone to recite bits of plays wherever and whenever he thinks fit. Christian is not impotent, but his taste runs to whores rather than his wife, whom he sees as a stupid cow.

It’s a long way from the latter-day romance of Princess Mary of Tasmania, and Crown Prince Fred of Denmark.

Nevertheless, the Australian connection may help create a local audience for this very solid costume drama, based on a true story.

Caroline’s saviour was Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German doctor who became the Royal Physician, and soon the King’s closest confidante. Stuensee was a progressive thinker – a self-styled Man of the Enlightenment, who deplored Denmark’s feudal backwardness.

Encouraged by the King to look after his miserable wife – “I want a fun Queen”, he says, – Struensee strikes up a friendship that soon turns into a passion. Caroline and Struensee not only share a bed, they enjoy the same political and philosophical opinions.

Emboldened by his success with both King and Queen, Stuensee strives to improve his position at Court. The King is happy to follow his ideas, imposing them on the Cabinet, who grow increasingly resentful. Events move swiftly, but as Struensee’s power grows and his reforms flourish, his enemies plan their counterstrike. We know that Struensee is sowing the seeds of his own destruction, although Denmark would eventually embrace his ideas, becoming the liberal state we recognise today.

There is never much doubt that the affair between Caroline and Struensee will end in disaster. We watch and wait, wondering how far it can go, and how much will be achieved politically.

This story of an affair between a Queen and the King’s most trusted advisor has been the subject of at least two fictionalised accounts in Denmark. It seems remarkable that it has taken so long for a movie to appear.

His fans will be pleased to find Danish heartthrob, Mads Mikkelsen in the role of Struensee, although he probably bears no more resemblance to the physician than he did to the ape-like Igor Stravinsky in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009), a film that should win a prize for the most unimaginative title of all time. The role of Caroline is played by Swedish actress, Alicia Vikander, who has an understated, girl-next-door quality; while Mikkel Folsgaard, as King Christian, is appearing in his first feature film. The jurors at this year’s Berlin Film Festival awarded him the Silver Bear for Best Actor.

Dr. Struensee would not be the last idealistic politician to be undone by his libido. It is a great bonus for filmmakers that moral courage and force of intellect is so often at variance with the weakness of the flesh.

A Royal Affair, Denmark, rated M, 128 mins

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 23, 2012