Progressing in the Wrong Direction, by David Bax
Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair has all the right ingredients to make a fascinating film. Regrettably, it also contains a number of unnecessary and unpleasant elements in overwhelming proportions. It’s simply put together wrong.
Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), an English royal, is wed to King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), who is most likely suffering from severe mental illness. He is unkind to her on those occasions that he spends any time with her at all and eventually, he embarks on a very long tour of Europe, leaving her highness behind in Copenhagen. When he returns, he has hired a new personal physician named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). While the politically radical Struensee comes to influence the way Christian rules, he also comes to love Queen Caroline, and she him.
Mikkelsen is the most familiar to Western audiences but all three of the leads are well-played. Vikander, though mainly inhabiting boredom, appears to understand instinctively that we can learn about a person simply by decoding why it is that boredom has befallen her. Caroline’s intellect and idealism are withering in Copenhagen without the sustenance they require. Vikander suggests all this with an economy of gestures and expressions. Wonderful as she is, however, it’s Følsgaard who deserves the greatest praise. Often, the role of the mentally ill person is the most showy. And it’s true that Følsgaard is allowed occasionally to swallow the scenery when Christian’s afflictions make him brazen. Yet, at other times, the king’s psyche causes him to be withdrawn and reticent, hobbled by his own anxieties and insecurities yet struggling to maintain the dignity of his role. Følsgaard attends to these emotions as meticulously as he does the others.
Magnetic as the performers may be, they are doomed by a screenplay that insists on telling the wrong story. The title may have tipped you off but this is the tale of a romance. In that respect, sadly, there is much more telling than showing. Unlike in Andrea Arnold’s recent Wuthering Heights, we are never presented with a reason to believe that these two are drawn passionately to each other or why they would be.
In contrast to the failings of the love story, though, stands the political one. The intriguing – and true – story of how the king’s physician came to be the puppet ruler of an entire nation and used that power to make enormously progressive strides forward should be at the forefront. Not only is it far more interesting than the predictable romance, it’s also far more timely. With Europe in crisis just as we are here in the United States, it’s helpful to look to the past for examples of how liberty and the presence of a healthy middle class have been instrumental to a society’s growth.
For reasons that are detailed in the movie, Denmark’s leap forward during the enlightenment was halted and reversed before eventually being restored long after the rest of Europe had caught up and surpassed it. Arcel, who – along with Rasmus Heisterberg – adapted Bodil Steensen-Leth’s novel, has a firm opinion as to why. Religion (and particularly its inclusion in government) is vilified starting early and often. There are have been few more bald-faced anti-theocracy films made. While this edges on being too obviously a pet cause of the filmmakers, its relation to the truth of the past is strong and evident enough to keep it grounded.
Despite the strength of A Royal Affair as a political drama, it is frustratingly insistent on being a romantic one. But the relationship between the doctor and the king is far more compelling than the one between the doctor and the queen.