Generally speaking, I can’t stand period pieces. There’s something about those costumes that flicks a switch in my brain from focused to attention deficit and after five minutes I start to look at the ceiling and wonder how that mould got there. I’m sure there are plenty of films that are beyond reproach under the umbrella of period pieces that you could throw at me until I’m bruised and bloodied but it will make little difference. Like crime novels, it’s a style that I go out of my way to avoid.
So it comes as a pleasant surprise (to the person writing this) that Nikilaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair was, in a phrase, rather enjoyable. Arcel is something of an up-and-comer, having directed four films that are little known outside of his native Denmark with his only major credit so far being co-writer for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Swe).
This film will no doubt bolster his curriculum vitae largely due to the outstanding performance of Mads Mikkelsen. He plays Johann Friedrich Struensee, a peasant physician hired to assist his royal highness, the mentally ill King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard). Mikkelsen has emerged as one of the strongest actors since his debut as the weak-willed Tonny in Pusher. Australian audiences are familiar with him as the bad guy in Casino Royale and this is easily one of the best performances of his career as the physician that bites into the very, very, very forbidden fruit.
Told from the point of view of the Queen, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) who also narrates the film, she is writing to her children to describe her true experiences as Queen of Denmark and wife to Christian who is living in another world. She’s chosen to be his suitor for reasons not made clear (unless I missed them) and we’re made aware very quickly that Christian is much less of a man and barely even a boy – at their first meeting he hides behind a tree and giggles like a schoolgirl. Caroline grins and bears it as she has little choice in the matter but to put up with his strange antics. All she wants to do is retire to her chambers (as they so eloquently put it) with Christian as this is the mark of success for a first night with the King but it’s his mental capacity that stops anything from going beyond hilariously awkward foreplay.
Unfortunately we’re given little insight into what it is that is exactly wrong with Christian and the brief encounters that Caroline and he share are limited to tiny cutaways that do nothing but give her reason to feel shut away from him. It’s an area that would have added great depth to the film and I feel cheated that we aren’t able to experience this. (Supposedly Arcel and co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg were planning on basing it on the novel The Visit of the Royal Physician but were unable to secure the rights so they instead based it on Prinsesse af blodet, a novel told from the Queen’s perspective. Whether or not this had a part to play in removing such an integral part of the story is up to you but I still feel like a part of the story is missing.)
Naturally, the King and Queen quickly fall out of love, if they were ever in it but maintain a public façade for PR purposes. Meanwhile, Denmark is in the middle of a retaliation of sorts from the people with revolutionary literature proposing controversial ideas of the time being published anonymously for fear of persecution. Struensee is one of these anonymous writers and a couple of former big-leaguers in the Kings Court like his work and want to sneak it into the official doctrine via his helping the King. He agrees and after hanging out with Christian for a while he meets the Queen and they fall for each other and declare their love and he updates his facebook status to ‘in a relationship’ without announcing whom because they’ll get into a lot of trouble.
I won’t spoil the rest of the film except to say if you’re thinking that that will happen at the end, you’re probably right. How far the truth is stretched is knowledge I’m not equipped with but Arcel creates an entertaining romp between the two of them for the remaining hundred minutes. It’s just over two hours and could have easily been twenty minutes shorter but by no means does it become a bore. Mikkelsen carries the film with two hands above his head while Folsgaard is happy enough pulling faces occasionally to convey ‘crazy’. He does it well – well enough to make you nervous around him – but the character feels one dimensional, not helped by the matter discussed above. Vikander does her best as the Queen unable to show her true affections but it’s mostly sullen glances and wry smiles.
There is a slight touch of the fairytale when it all comes to a close but it’s nice to see that all the heartache wasn’t in vein, if the closing captions explaining how Denmark benefitted from Struensee are to be believed. A film to see for Mikkelsen alone with everything else coming in second. Yes, he’s that good.
and a half stars.
Nicholas Brodie is on twitter – you can follow him @fodusempire.
Directed: Nikolaj Arcel
Written: Bodil Steensen-Leth (novel), Rasmus Heisterberg (screenplay)
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Alicia Vikander
A Royal Affair is released in Australia June 21.