Toronto is technically in a country that still serves the British monarchy, though the scandals have never been this juicy. If you liked the Swedish adaption of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” then you’ll be pleased to know the same scriptwriters penned this intriguing tale of sex, love and betrayal. As an 18th century period drama based on a true story, it’s not surprising “A Royal Affair” is long. But it’s also fascinating and will keep audience’s attention the full two-plus hours. This story was made for the screen.
Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) was bred to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) of Denmark. Though she was hopeful for a good marriage, her hopes were dashed when his temperament was shown to be intolerable. Most of the council considered him mad and he did little to prove them otherwise. When approached to become the king’s personal physician, small town doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) thought it impossible. But he impressed the finicky ruler with his knowledge of Shakespeare and quickly became his closest friend and confidante. In his time away from the king however, Struensee found himself drawn to the like-minded Queen. Unable to resist, they embarked in a secret, passionate affair. This may have been ignored if they weren’t also using Struensee’s influence over the king to make vast reforms in the country. Desperate to separate the pair, the king’s enemies made the affair public with dire consequences.
This is a fantastic film worthy of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. There is a raw significance in everything that happens, which grows as the narrative progresses. Christian’s erratic and profane behaviour is contemptible and ill-fitting of a king. It’s impossible to like him, but not to pity him. Though Caroline is relating the events, her character is often pushed to the background. Struensee, on the other hand, is always at the forefront. He is instrumental to all occurrences from the moment he appears on screen. The audience unavoidably has mixed feelings about his union with Caroline; it’s clearly wrong and bound to end badly, but they also belong with each other.
The story is ceaselessly captivating, whether your interest is history, politics or romance. The Enlightenment was essentially a civil action group that believed in human rights and welfare – interests not held high for common citizens. They’re role in changing Danish laws is explored, as well as the power of the council in relation to the king. Many strings are pulled and even more people manipulated, creating multiple betrayals and deceptions that continue to unfurl until the film’s final moments.
Unfolding in a convincing environment, supported by costumes and set designs, the actors lend themselves completely to their characters. Følsgaard was already recognized for his performance by the Berlin International Film Festival. He shows a lot of intensity and anxiety, like a bomb ready to go off at the slightest perceived offense. Vikander displays dignity and control in all situations, which would seem difficult in certain instances. Mikkelsen is a dominant presence. He emits strength mixed with a fear that it could all end at any moment – so he does all that he can while he can, acting with absolute conviction.
“A Royal Affair” is playing at Toronto’s Varsity Cinema beginning Feb. 1.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard
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