Film Review: A Royal Affair

Film producers, as a species, are notoriously risk averse creatures, which is why it's always a special joy when a film that doesn't have dollar signs written all over it slips through the net. This is just such a film, based as it is on one of those pieces of history that is bafflingly, criminally overlooked, and having at its heart a complicated, decidedly unheartwarming love affair fuelled by – of all the unsexy things – the Enlightenment.

The true story in question is that of King Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808), his wife Caroline Matilda and the king's physician Johann Friedrich Struensee. Daughter of the tragic Frederick, Prince of Wales (who I've written about before) poor Caroline was genetically predisposed to have an unhappy family life, though initially hopes were high when she was shipped off to marry the by all accounts charming, handsome and artistic Christian of Denmark. Sadly, what these reports had neglected to mention was that Christian was an outrageous libertine and already suffering from psychological and emotional problems that would only worsen with time, to the extent that he has often referred to as 'mad'.

Following their early dutiful sexual encounters (portrayed with a painful and no doubt realistic awkwardness in the film) things rapidly soured, Christian turning to prostitutes in Copenhagen's brothels, and Caroline making no secret of her disdain for her husband. When in 1767 Christian's psychological problems became so severe he was unable to continue a tour of Europe he had embarked upon, a search was mounted for a physician who could help him. Johann Friedrich Struensee was in many ways an odd choice, firstly because he was seemingly nothing but a small town doctor, and secondly because unknown to the king he was the secret author of tracts in favour of Enlightenment ideals (regarded with deep suspicion and censored in the country at the time) and something of a Rousseau fanboy. But the fact was that the king liked him, and he calmed the king down enough that he could maintain a semblance of normality, enough at least to perform his public duties.

Though Caroline initially detests Struensee for encouraging her husband's profligate behaviour, in the best tradition of cinematic romance, she soon recognises she has misjudged him and warms to his passionate desire to chamge the Danish establishment (which had never really accepted her, or vice versa) as well as his genuine interest in her welfare and company.

Ultimately, Caroline and Struensee entered into a clandestine affair, at the same time as the king, who had come to rely on him completely, dismissed all his other minsters in 1770, leaving Struensee effectively running the country. Struensee then embarked on a radical and breathless period of reform, issuing up to 3 socially progressive laws a day, and winning the king a fan letter from Voltaire himself.

The dream was not to last. It is generally accepted that Princess Louise Augusta, Caroline's second child, is Struensee's daughter, though she retained her status as the daughter of the king. Struensee's mania for reform, coupled with his affair with the Queen, eventually meant that the people, and more importantly the many political enemies he had made, turned against him and brought about his downfall.

This is at times a convoluted story but the film handles it with aplomb, squeezing out every drop of intensity and drama. Costumes are beautiful, period locations are used atmospherically, and clever but subtle special effects draw you unquestioningly into the period. It’s tautly paced and, despite its grand protagonists, feels intimate and human. Mads Mikellson is suitably charming, enigmatic and intense as Struensee, even if there are times we could wish to see a little more of what drives him. Alicia Vikander is probably a little too beautiful for the part (the real Caroline did not have such looks to rely on), and if she lacks the personal drive and commitment to change that drove her historical counterpart, she remains an intriguing and sympathetic presence in this film, distant and disappointed, and later dealing with the pain of exile and the regret of causing the turn events that saw the man she loved, as well as both her children, taken from her.

For my money though it's Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who really shines as Christian. An actor who could pass for royalty himself (exuding that haughty attractiveness that even obvious inbreeding cannot dent) his is a wonderfully nuanced performance that constantly keeps you guessing about the true state of Christian's mind. Is he deranged, or some sort of perpetual spoiled child, or, as is suggested by Struensee at one point, is he just so bound to his fate that his mind, surplus to requirements, has retreated deep into himself?

The image of Christian, after his wife and closest confidant have been taken from him, shuffling around the palace holding the hand of the black slave boy who was bought to entertain him, but looks at him with open repulsion, is one of the most haunting of the film.

A striking, beautiful film, this is well worth seeking out, and should be applauded for shedding light on this wrongfully neglected story.

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