Political enlightenment doesn’t come easily. At least, it didn’t in the Danish royal court of the late 1760s.
That’s the gist of “A Royal Affair,” nominated for the foreign-language Oscar earlier this month. Centered on the reign of King Christian VII, it’s a potboiler of court intrigue, power, sex, mental illness and progressive thinking.
The political chemistry is hotter than the sexual, so this is something of a disappointment as a bodice ripper. But it’s intriguing, beautifully filmed in Prague, and boasts some strong acting nonetheless.
The movie opens when Caroline Mathilde, 15-year-old sister of Britain’s King George III, is betrothed to Christian shortly after he takes the throne around his 17th birthday.
There she finds the rumors are true that Christian is mentally unhinged, a childlike brat who loves his dog more than his queen. After cruelly doing his kingly duties and siring an heir, he abandons her for courtesans — to her relief.
But on a tour of Europe, the king’s mental troubles become too much. A German doctor, Friedrich Struensee, is tapped by a couple of scheming noblemen, Rantzau and Brandt, and wins appointment as the king’s physician. Calm and centered, Struensee finds the king easily led.
An avid reader of Voltaire and Rousseau, Struensee soon encourages the much-bullied king to take charge of the Danish council of noblemen and enact badly needed reforms.
But orphanages, health care and sewer sanitation measures don’t over go well with the privileged class or ambitious members of the clergy.
Dowager Queen Juliane, who has a son competing for the throne, looks for leverage. She gets it when Struensee falls into the bed of lonely Caroline.
For a while, life is pretty good for Caroline and Struensee. He’s best pals with the king, in bed with the queen, and they’re doing the country some good. But of course the piper must eventually be paid as the queen’s second pregnancy fans the flames of a rumored affair.
Director Nicolaj Arcel draws strong performances from Mads Mikkelsen (Chiffre in “Casino Royale”) as Struensee and Trine Dyrholm as the scheming dowager queen.
Mikkel Boe Folsgaard is a standout as the mad king, who eventually becomes a sympathetic character in the hands of this skilled actor.
But Mikkelsen has little onscreen chemistry with Alicia Vikander, who plays Caroline, and you almost believe they’re more in love with reform than each other.
The movie reverberates a tad off today’s headlines of a class war in the United States, with elements of science, religion and resentment of foreigners coming into play.
It’s a fascinating enough yarn that it may send you to history references, as it did me, where you’ll learn the basic facts are all true.
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