A Royal Affair - SideReel Review
The costume drama A Royal Affair, Denmark’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars, is beautifully shot, well-acted, and kind of a slog to get through. While based on actual historical events, the story feels like it’s been simplified and reshaped in order to fit the template of the "doomed romance in a repressive era of history" subgenre -- there are no real surprises here, nor is there enough nuance in the characters to justify a running time of 137 minutes.
After a title card preps us on the general facts about the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe (short version: progressive reforms, good for peasants, bad for greedy aristocrats), we’re introduced to an upper-class British woman named Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), who is summarily told that she’s to be shipped off to Denmark to become the queen of King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Christian, unfortunately, is a childlike simpleton who seems more interested in playing with his dog than paying attention to his wife, and when his madness becomes impossible to ignore, the court force him to find a new royal physician. His unlikely choice for the position is Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a free thinker, proponent of secularism, and anonymous author of several incendiary pamphlets. Before long, Caroline finds herself attracted to Johann as one of the few intelligent, open-minded people in the Danish court, and together they use their combined influence on Christian to push for reforms and turn the country into a model of Enlightenment values.
The biggest problem with A Royal Affair is that once you know the basic elements of the plot -- a mad king, a lonely woman trapped in the gilded cage of life among royalty, a hunky doctor whose free-thinking ways make him irresistible to said woman, a ruling class who refuse to cede an inch, a peasantry who are easily manipulated -- you can predict 90% of what’s going to happen. Even the smaller details of the characters’ lives seem rehashed from other movies: When, for example, Johann helps calm Caroline’s nerves with a dose of laudanum, you just know that she’ll be a hopeless addict a few scenes later without any further development.
This wouldn’t be a fatal shortcoming if the movie was willing to explore the Enlightenment itself in greater detail, but its treatment of the era’s politics comes off as fairly shallow. We never see a debate between two reasonable people on any major issue; instead, Johann is almost always depicted as a secular saint whose suggestions for making life better for the commoners (inoculating everyone against smallpox, establishing orphanages, promoting freedom of speech) are violently opposed by an aristocracy that isn’t willing to contribute one cent of its money to help the public good. While this might be an accurate portrait of how hard it was to fight for real social change in the 18th century, it feels as if the movie is stacking the deck in order to make Johann look as noble as possible. Surely in real life intelligent people argued about how these reforms should best be implemented?
While most of the screenplay is content to wallow in cliches, there are some occasional flashes of moral ambiguity. When the commoners become restless, Johann is forced to crack down on the freedom of speech he recently championed in order to pass the rest of his reforms. It’s a brief moment that’s quickly forgotten, but at least it shows that changing the entire social fabric of a nation might not be an easy or straightforward process.
More intriguing is the movie’s portrayal of King Christian VII, whose mental state is never truly explained: Is he actually going mad, or has he simply regressed into an infantile state as a result of being waited on hand and foot all day? Folsgaard’s daffy performance makes either one seem like a possibility, and he provides the movie’s sole source of tension as we wonder if Christian’s newfound belief in Enlightenment ideals and his friendship with Johann are anything more than a passing fancy. After all, he’s the only thing standing between the good doctor and an aristocracy that would kill to protect its privileges.
Unfortunately, Christian recedes into the background as the movie winds to a close, while Johann and Caroline’s generic love affair takes center stage. Mikkelsen and Vikander make a good-looking couple and have chemistry together, but it’s frustrating to think that the movie shortchanges the fascinating history of how the Enlightenment swept through Europe in favor of a romance that shows us nothing new. A Royal Affair might look great, but ultimately you’ve seen it all before.