"A Royal Affair" is a beautifully composed, lyrical film that entirely devotes itself to authenticity in its characters, to the beauty and tranquility of royal wealth and grandeur, and to the birth of Denmark as a fully realized country with an informed populace. The last one may not feel as interesting as the other two, and yet "A Royal Affair" makes it matter by working tirelessly to balance the various components of plot, image and meaning, and does so quite nicely.
The chronicle of 18th century Denmark's transition from oppressed country to enlightenment begins with the quiet English Princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) shipped off to distant Denmark to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Though she is initially thrilled with her newfound status as queen, she's less than pleased with her husband, the king. King Christian suffers mental illness of some sort and is uninterested in Caroline, tolerating her presence but preferring the company of whores and having fun over ruling his kingdom.
When a new royal physician, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), is appointed and becomes the king's best friend, a torrid romance begins between the queen and the doctor. The doctor's radical ideas take hold in the mind of the queen and those around them, and as they slowly seek to shape the future of Denmark through enlightened ideas and practices that benefit the people, their own future hangs in the balance as well.
"A Royal Affair" is a well-crafted period Danish drama, which may throw viewers with a distaste for subtitles, but there's a great deal to enjoy about the film, from the beautiful costumes to the exceptional score, penned by Gabriel Yared. Fans of the elegant details of period films will delight in the gorgeous landscapes, the period accurate setting and the rich historical content, which push "A Royal Affair" from a confectionery bon mot into something a little meatier.
The story is intriguing though perhaps not enthralling, we're not given much insight into the history of the Enlightenment or why it matters so vividly to Dr. Struensee that the people are given more freedom and rights. The film is also quite long, though it doesn't seem so, clocking in at nearly two hours and twenty minutes. The world that director Nikolaj Arcel has created bears up under that much scrutiny, and though the film could perhaps lose about twenty minutes, it is pleasant enough to dwell in and never drags on for too long. Perhaps the one major misstep may be the title, which is terrible, all sordid pomp and vaguely implied lechery.
Relative newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard deserves special recognition for his studied and elegant performance of King Christian, balancing his mental instability and powerlessness with a personality that comes alive with attention and care. Mads Mikkelsen is the anchoring point of the film, the place where every other character finds strength and purpose, the sun around which the world of Denmark revolved, if only for a time. Christian is childish and given to chasing whims, and it is the presence of Streunsee that calms and focuses him, though even as Struensee genuinely likes the king, he too eventually begins to fall prey to the seductive nature of power.
Another newcomer to American cinema, Alicia Vikander is already making waves in both this film as well as for her turn in the upcoming Joe Wright film "Anna Karenina." Vikander is blessed with a beauty that lingers in the mind, her face capable of showing what it is not necessary to explain with words. As Queen Caroline, Vikander carries the plot in her pocket, and it's fascinating to see a young actress on the cusp of her breakthrough, and exciting to know we'll see more of her.
It's easy to understand why the film is Denmark's official entry in the Foreign Language Film category of the 85th Academy Awards, the dynamic of revolutionary influence elevates the film from merely a beautiful period piece to a more fully realized story that also carries with it a heady romantic quality. We are drawn undeniably to well-crafted beauty, power wielded for good and romance built upon authenticity, and "A Royal Affair" has all three in bounds.
'A Royal Affair' begins a limited release run on Nov. 2, 2012