A Royal Affair
based on Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth
2012 • 137 minutes • Nordisk Film Distribution
I think about cultural context a lot, especially when strange men try to talk to me and I respond in Monster French, which is when you shriek French through your nose at someone. (If you do it loud enough, nobody will notice you have the vocabulary of a six year old! If you can quack “quoi,” you’re halfway there.) The effectiveness of Monster French is predicated on the assumption that my white bread self speaks English (as well as the assumption that I will parlez cette langue avec vous), and I think it’s healthy for everybody to have cultural assumptions like that destabilized once in a while.
Mads Mikkelsen’s cultural context is a particularly curious one. In Anglophone cinema, he’s largely perceived as a character actor dealing almost exclusively in villains, to the point that he actually had to protest that he wasn’t playing a villain in Star Wars: Rogue One by virtue of simply being cast. (I am personally hoping for “weird Jedi.” All the best Jedi are weirdos, like Luke Skywalker and Qui-Gon Jinn, the Bad Idea Jedi himself.) In Danish cinema, however, his cache cannot be overstated—he can do no wrong, because he, in a sense, is Danish cinema, especially as a metonym for that industry on the global stage.
I was quite looking forward to A Royal Affair destabilizing my perception of Mikkelsen as an actor, especially after mainlining Hannibal. (WAIL!) I was also hoping to get an angle on European history that I’ve rarely had a chance to experience—Scandinavian history tends to fall by the wayside in American history classes. A Royal Affair succeeds in the former and, strangely, fails in the latter.
A Royal Affair begins with Princess Caroline Mathilda of Great Britain being married off to Denmark’s Christian VII in 1766. Despite her hopeful but practical approach to the marriage, she can’t handle Christian’s increasingly unhinged behavior. After the birth of their first son, Caroline bars him from her bedroom. When Christian’s behavior becomes so erratic as to merit a personal physician, courtiers sympathetic to the Enlightenment see an opening to influence the king and nominate the German doctor and Enlightenment thinker Johann Friedrich Struensee to the position. When Struensee begins appearing at court, Caroline is repulsed by his enabling of Christian, but when she discovers that Struensee shares her political beliefs, they form a bond that quickly turns into an affair.
Mikkelsen is, predictably, amazing as Struensee. He’s affable, romantic, determined, and, as the film wears on, grimmer and grimmer as he’s forced to make compromises that go against his beliefs and separated from the woman he loves. And Alicia Vikander, familiar to this summer’s audiences as Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., brings a grace that grows brittle from ill use to Caroline Mathilde. There’s an amazing moment where Caroline is told by a doctor to be poised and quiet during childbirth and she just screams at him. (It’s a good idea to get in on the ground floor with Vikander, friends; apparently her performance in The Danish Girl is set to make her explode.)
But the film itself is so familiar that I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d fallen into a Danish language version of Marie Antoinette. (Not helping: the fact that several costumes were recycled from Marie Antoinette.) I did learn a little about Danish history—this period in Danish history is full of starts, stops, and reversals on the road to Enlightenment politics—but the film tends to montage them. To be fair, the script is merely following history there (Struensee passed 1069 court orders while he was in charge of the government), but it all adds up to something that just feels like a by the numbers period drama. And that’s not really an insult; I seek those movies out sometimes. It’s just that I can get that in English all the time; culturally destabilizing, it is not.
A Royal Affair does have one touch that sets it above the petticoated masses, however: it’s almost kind with Christian. It’s not entirely kind—he is depicted as almost uniformly cruel and capacious, especially towards Caroline, who, as our primary protagonist, gets the bulk of our sympathy. But the film does make it clear that the nobles and the progressives are both manipulating Christian’s mental illness and his parental issues (he relates to Caroline and Struensee almost as his parents towards the end of the film) to wage a political war. It’s almost worse the way Struensee and company do it, because they let Christian believe that he has some measure of agency in a situation where he does not. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (in, alarmingly, his film debut) imbues him with humanity in a way that doesn’t excuse his behavior or the way that other people manipulate him. It’s an astonishing performance.
I watched this film on Netflix.