Title: A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære)
Genre(s): Drama, Romance
Director(s): Nikolaj Arcel
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
The age of enlightenment is a milestone in history that has resulted in the world we live in now. Before, religion and state had overbearing control over what was seen by their citizens, and any inkling of free thought could result in a quick trip to the guillotine. Then a new era was ushered in, where books became more valuable than almost anything else. Information could be freely sought and learning to question authorities was encouraged. Yet, in some countries, this was (and still is) a discouraged notion. It took many nations years before the age of enlightenment could become mainstay, albeit to much hesitation. A Royal Affair is a portrait of this time, showing Denmark’s struggle to adhere to the new ways of thinking through the eyes of three incredibly well-developed characters.
Period pieces are so often enamored by their own sense of importance, and they definitely tend to attract the more high-brow audiences than the mainstream ones. The main reason for this seems to be because the world that they live in seems so distant from the one we live in today, general audiences immediately feel a disconnect. The more astute viewer is watching these films for a lesson in the past, or to yearn for a simpler time. A Royal Affair makes its comments about that simpler time and berates it, showing how great things are now because we let go of the past. Based on a true story about events that took place in 18th century Denmark and produced by everyone’s favourite controversial person, Lars von Trier, the film breathes life into a world that was so cold and grim that there’s no wonder people wanted change. But what the people want is not necessarily in the same vain as what those in power want. Why allow people to criticize your every move? Why let them be informed on things you don’t want them to know about? Individual opinions? Debate? What good could possibly come from a world with so many questions?
The story is a goblet overflowing with deception and betrayal, and also serves as an excellent love story. Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is married off to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), soon after which she discovers is insane. Not blood-thirsty insane, but the kind of insane where he will go from happy to angry in a heartbeat. He is a man who only needs to be appeased on the basest of levels. If he’s horny, pleasure him. If he’s hungry, feed him. If he’s angry, tell him he’s the best person out there. The problem is that no one in court sees him as a viable king, and seek out a doctor to ail him. Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) quickly becomes the match made in heaven for Christian. But Johann is also a man of enlightenment, and because of this forms a relationship with Caroline, unbeknownst to the King. The two soon learn to use the King as a means of beginning the age of enlightenment, since he’s too dim-witted to realize that what he’s saying is so radical.
Of course, things can only run smoothly for so long, and that is the magic of this film. There are scenes of dialogue between Johann and Christian that are great, and you really feel sympathetic towards Følsgaard’s character. His portrayal is remarkable, and out of every film I’ve seen this year, it’s one of the best performances out there. In fact, I’d rank it among one of the best ever in a period piece, though it is a character that demands an above-and-beyond performance. The most important thing to note though, is this is one of his first roles ever as he’s a young up-and-coming actor. Really, this is a role that should make him huge, at least in Denmark. The fact that he outshines Mikkelsen in this film says something, as he recently gave an award-worthy performance in The Hunt.
The acting is really just icing on the cake though, because everything about this film is of the highest caliber: the script is exceptionally tight, the cinematography is both dark and lush with some extremely beautiful shots, the costumes are fitting, the music is wonderful, and the acting is impeccable, especially from Følsgaard. He really does bring the movie up to a higher level of quality. The movie is not going to break free of the problems with period piece films though. It’s long, and because it’s a foreign film, North American audiences might be reluctant get behind it. The same type of people that will normally watch period pieces will watch this one, and maybe a few more because it’s written by Nikolaj Arcel (who also directed) and Rasmus Heisterberg, the duo that helped write the screenplay for the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s an unconventional period piece that isn’t afraid to comment on how awful life was back then, but it is unlikely to ever get the success it deserves in international markets. Regardless, see it if you can, because the acting alone is enough reason to enjoy this wonderfully woven story. Hopefully with it being Denmark’s choice for the Foreign Film Academy Award, more people will see this film than they otherwise would have. It’s a shoe-in to make it into the final nominations and is definitely going to be a big contender for the award.
Screening courtesy of the Vancouver International Film Festival