All words: Ross Bonaime
The costume drama is an unrightfully criticized genre. Since the cast is stiff and rigid in corsets and other uncomfortable clothes of the period, surely the film must be equally as stuffy and uncomfortable, or so most audiences seem to think. Without even knowing the premise of a film, one can see the costumes and automatically assume that this may not be the film for them. For costume dramas, clothes can sometimes make the film instantly uninteresting. I’ll admit to falling into the same trappings upon watching the trailer for A Royal Affair. For me, my mind snaps when I see flowing dresses and powdered wigs and think, “how is this going to be different from The Duchess/The Other Boleyn Girl/Bright Star/costume drama of this year.” Foolishly, I shouldn’t have let clothes dictate my feelings on this film. My prejudices almost held me from seeing one of the best foreign films of the year. I shouldn’t have judged this book by its cover.
A Royal Affair on the surface even sounds at times like a film you might have seen before. Carolina Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is a British princess who is sent to Denmark to be introduced to, and marry, her future husband Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). But instantly something doesn’t seem right to Carolina or the audience. Christian VII is found hanging out of a tree, gleefully playing around. When Christian VII enters Carolina’s bedchambers the first night after meeting, he is awkward and unconventional, telling her not to steal his light. As their relationship grows older, the more she’s put off by him. He interrupts plays to talk to the actors, acts childish, and doesn’t seem to have any interest in leading. There’s something mentally wrong with Christian VII, and no one cared to tell Carolina about it.
When the king gets sick on a voyage abroad, a revolutionary doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee becomes Christian VII’s royal physician. Carolina had all of her books of the Enlightenment sent back to England upon her arrival and has resigned herself to the horrible existence of living with a king she doesn’t love, but finds a kindred spirit in Johann. The two have an affair while the king is out drinking, sleeping with hookers, and getting in fights.
What is fascinating about A Royal Affair is that any other film would most likely be cut and dry about this topic, but A Royal Affair is more interested in the dynamics between these three. Johann uses Christian VII to push his Enlightenment ideals when the two become close friends. Eventually, Johann is creating legislation that Christian VII immediately passes, fast-forwarding Enlightenment where there previously was none. Co-writers Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel balance all three of these characters beautifully as they enter a sort of symbiotic relationship. Their relationships have reached a point where if one of them is taken out of the equation, everything is destroyed. These three characters are neither put in the place of the hero or the villain, they are all simply human.
Even though A Royal Affair takes place in the 18th century, these dynamics and the second half of the film, which focuses on the bureaucracy of ruling and the ideas of forward thinking in a world that continues to look to the past, is still an effective story to tell and is done exquisitely well here.
Vikander and Mikkelsen are great, but the standout is easily Folsgaard as Christian VII. This is his first film, but that’s incredibly hard to believe with the performance he gives. He plays Christian VII with a brilliant uncertainty that leaves a level of worry in the back of your mind, never quite sure what horrible things he will say or do next. It’s a very nuanced performance that is easily one of the year’s best.
Arcel directs A Royal Affair with gorgeous use of shadow, light and dark, that feels modern even amongst the castles and estates of centuries ago. Arcel has a lot of true information to handle, between the love story, the politics and the state of country, and with a film that is over two hours, never makes it feel bloated or like it’s trying to take on too much material.
A Royal Affair is fascinating in that is takes a great, true story and makes it an accessible, shocking and frequently exciting film that features phenomenal performances, beautiful cinematography, and a well-handled script. It creates a tapestry that works better that it looks like it should from the outside. It’s understandable to be wary of yet another costume drama, but it’s rare to find another one in recent memory that handles its material as well as A Royal Affair does.