Susan Granger’s review of “A Royal Affair” (Magnolia Pictures)
Most Americans know little about Scandinavian history, so the name Johann Friedrich Struensee is unfamiliar. But the Danes credit this idealistic 18th century German physician for bringing policies of Enlightenment to their country, eventually leading to the Age of Reason.
In 1766, a naïve, 15 year-old British princess, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a sister of King George III, is betrothed to her cousin, the King of Denmark. When she arrives in Copenhagen, Caroline discovers to her dismay that His Majesty Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) is an infantile idiot, devoted only to his enormous dog. The tortuous tedium of her lonely palace life is only relieved when ambitious, intelligent Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is recruited by the nobility to accompany her volatile, mentally unbalanced husband on a European tour. Returning to the Danish court as Royal doctor, tutor and advisor, Strunsee not only introduces a set of radical socio-political reforms, including inoculation against smallpox and the repeal of censorship, that infuriate the elitist, faith-based ruling Council, but he also indulges in a dangerous extramarital relationship with the Queen. This treasonous betrayal doesn’t escape the notice of Dowager Queen Juliane (Trine Dyrholm), who is determined to usurp the throne for her own son (William Johnk Nielsen).
Based on historical fact, it’s co-scripted by Rasmus Heisterberg and director Nikolaj Arcel with sumptuously cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek. It’s elevated above the usual costume drama by the naturalistic performances. Best known to American audiences for villainous roles in “Casino Royale” and “Clash of the Titans,” Mads Mikkelsen embodies a dour, yet compelling force, warned but unheeding of the fabled lesson learned by Lancelot and Guinevere in Camelot. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard brings pathetic anguish to impulsive Christian and Alicia Vikander’s plight is heartbreaking. What emerges is a classic, if overlong tragedy, clocking in at 2 hours, 18 minutes.
In Danish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Royal Affair” is an epic, intriguing 8, a cautionary tale that emerges as one of the best foreign films of the year.