Too often, period films are often dismissed as “costume drama.” This reductive perspective does a disservice to a genre of cinema that, in the right hands, can offer history that illuminates the present as much as recreate the past. Recently, independent movie studios have brought some amazing period films focused on the late 18th century to U.S. art houses. Mozart’s Sister re-imagined the sister of the child prodigy as an ahead-of-her-time go-getter (review). Farewell My Queen focused on the skittish malaise of Marie Antoinette as the ruling class hoarded their riches while peasants starved, a prescient drama considering all the talk of the increasing divide of the financial classes in today’s age (I could not help but review it in tandem with the documentary the Queen of Versailles). Though the stories of these films take place during the end of the Age of Enlightenment, they also seem to have a knack for illuminating society in today’s current time.
Now comes the Danish film A Royal Affair, recently announced as a Best Foreign Language contender for the Oscar® (it lost to Amour during for the Golden Globes in the same category [my review for Amour comes next week]). Let the title not misinform you, this film explores much more than a queen cheating on her king with one of his subjects. The drama may be between the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the queen of Denmark, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and her man-child king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) for whom the doctor was hired to tend to, but this triangle only offers the human backdrop for the larger story. Director Nikolaj Arcel uses humor and sexual tension peppered with the conflict of ideas of the Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) versus the church to create a dynamic film that maintains a brisk pace, despite its two-hour-15-minute runtime.
Beyond the tension of the triangle there are those hovering in the corners of the drama. These are people more interested in maintaining power than new ideas of human rights, one of the accepted wisdoms of Rousseau, a writer Struensee and Caroline both enjoy reading. Christian’s mother Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm) constantly plots her control over her son and manipulates one God-fearing handmaiden who tends to the Queen to onerous effect. Meanwhile, the lawmakers and money grubbers on the council use Christian for his disinterest in what seems mere bureaucracy to their own advantage.
The control of the court over free thought was so strong that when Caroline, the daughter of the Prince of Wales, arrives at the palace set to marry Christian, some of her books are confiscated, as they are censored by Danish law. It is a tragic moment considering she is first established as an educated young woman, who learns fluent Danish before the arranged marriage. She also seems excited about marrying a king, until she meets the man who introduces himself by playing peekaboo from behind a tree. His attitude brings to mind Tom Hulce playing Mozart in Amadeus. Christian has no manners even in his gait and enjoys hopping around with his dog above talking with his new wife (Følsgaard won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at last year’s Berlin Film Festival).
When Christian leaves for a long tour of Europe and does not come back, Struensee, a well-known doctor who works in the town, is hired to cure Christian of his madness. In a series of witty scenes, Struensee will show the power of a dog whisperer to coax Christian to show some responsibility. Though Christian remains a sort of wild creature of Id, he ends up admiring his doctor so much that he even mimics Struensee’s movements when they both stretch after a run. Praise for Mikkelsen should not be underplayed, as he embodies Struensee with both noble restraint and a comfortable frankness in ease that carries a refreshing air. I last saw him playing the mute, one-eyed savage in Valhalla Rising, a profoundly different creature.
There are many dense, loaded scenes throughout a Royal Affair that never linger too long and push the action along while illuminating enlightened thinking and its repercussion on human behavior. When people are repressed, there’s often a tension ready to explode. One of the more dramatic moments occurs before Struensee arrives, when Caroline gives birth to Frederick VI. As she screams while pushing during delivery, the king’s tutor tells her, “A true queen delivers in silence and with dignity.” She responds by yelling louder in the direction of the tutor, as she continues to push. It’s a sly symbolic and visceral moment of the old vision versus the enlightened spirit, repressed in Caroline at this point in the film.
As Struensee makes progress with Christian, the king asks him to see to his wife’s growing depression. Like any good doctor, Struensee, who also seems to show a grasp of psychology, uses a different approach for the intellectual Caroline. They share thoughts on Rousseau, and he lends her the books he has brought to the palace. But it’s not all chit-chat. He also prescribes that she ride horseback. She dismisses it as a “clumsy” exercise. He replies with a twinkle in his eye, “Because you ride side-saddle.” With the next brisk cut, Caroline is running a horse like no tomorrow, bliss— and maybe some sexuality— all over her grinning face.
A Royal Affair does much to maintain pace and balance while keeping things interesting on both a dramatic and intellectual level. As Struensee and the queen exchange thoughts you cannot help but wonder where enlightenment and reason has gone in today’s time. Lines like, “Who is more disturbed? The king or someone who believes the earth was made in six days?” have an obvious purpose to rile up such thoughts.
The film’s drama lies in such disparate ways of thinking and how it affects society. Enlightened thinkers like Rousseau and Struensee called for a humanitarianism that should, in the end, benefit everyone. Struensee’s advice to the king encourages him to find an interest in ruling. It becomes something more than hoarding riches while squeezing every last drop out of the citizenry. But along with it comes a naiveté, as the movie so gradually reveals. As the trio grows blissfully close on social reforms, Struensee and the queen grow soulfully close. Those on the king’s court more interested in power will learn how adapt and take advantage of the system and undermine it.
The tragic unraveling happens at as brisk a pace as it is all set up. Though the film is long, it remains efficient throughout and never dialogue-heavy and meandering. Scenes on average last maybe a minute and the dialogue always has an illuminating character while also pushing the action along.
Of course as a “costume drama,” one must consider how Arcel captures the era, and he does so with exquisite detail. The lighting always seems natural, from scenes in sun-drenched rooms to those in candlelight. The cinematography is often sensitive and intimate. The shallow focus never calls too much attention to itself, but rather illuminates the atmosphere. The art direction is always much more than superficial. There are dark, unlit rooms for dark times. In early scenes, the brilliant colors of the carriages contrasted with the rat-infested grime of the street, reminds the viewer of the class tension of the era.
From acting to art direction and story that transcends melodrama, A Royal Affair is a smart, well-paced movie with ideas and a sense of drama. On an all-encompassing level, the film deserves the recognition it has garnered. As luscious as it is, its only fault may be that it is all too perfect and precisely executed. However, it captures the tension between ideas of the Enlightenment and religion while maintaining a human sense of drama like no other period film I have ever seen.
A Royal Affair is Rated R (expect sex and period brutality of torture and be-headings), runs 137 min. and is in Danish and French with English subtitles. Magnolia Pictures provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida at the following theaters on Friday, Jan. 18:
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)