There is a heady and rousing whiff of corruption, scandal, passion and Enlightenment to delight the avid period drama fan in Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair. The fact that it is based on the true story of 15-year-old English princess Caroline Mathilde who was married off to unhinged King Christian in the 18th century gives it an added fascination and kudos than the average historical affair. And in a cinematic climate of superhero movies at present, a bit of Baroque decadence makes an appetising change.
En kongelig affære as it is known in Danish stars Alicia Vikander as the young queen Caroline, older and wiser beyond her years, who is married off to insane King Christain VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). The immature King behaves outrageously in society while holding his court to ransom, much to Caroline’s disgust.
It is the early 1770s when Enlightenment thinking is spreading fast across Europe and regal rule is being questioned by the socialists. In Denmark, one believer, a young German physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), successfully gets the position as Christian’s personal physician and begins to change the country’s way of ruling. He also starts a torrid love affair with the despairing young queen. Together they begin a revolution that changes a nation forever and seals their fate.
Visually, Arcel’s cinematography encompasses all the dark, dramatic mood of a Baroque masterpiece, perpetuating the emotional turmoil of the film’s characters further. Like a sedate Dangerous Liaisons the powerful mix of forbidden behaviour between a dynamic trio is a winning combination once more, so much so when the film has been so beautifully cast. Far from frivolous period dramatics, these three gradually feed off each others weaknesses and complexities, making what happens next an exciting mystery.
Serene Mikkelsen smoulders in this with his standard cool control, coupled with a seductive curl of the lip and flicker of flaming passion in the eye towards the angelic-looking and demure Vikander. What admittedly seems like an ill-matched pairing of acting talent at beginning becomes more accomplished as the story progresses. But the stage belongs to Følsgaard who pulls his character, Christian, to the bitter edge and back again, in a show of multiple personas, adding the only tomfoolery to an otherwise austere situation.
A Royal Affair is a beautifully nuanced and driven period drama at its finest with the added power of a true story behind it, making it a deserving box office hit to watch.