An idealistic and charismatic doctor. A mad king. A neglected queen. Can you see where this is going? What makes director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair historically intriguing — aside from its incredible costumes and sets — is that this 18th century love triangle ushered in ultra-conservative Denmark's Age of Enlightenment.
The king is Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), a foolish and paranoid monarch that German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) refuses to declare insane. The queen is Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander), the teenage sister of England's King George III, who has been pawned off for political reasons. More interesting than the affair that develops between the Queen and Struensee is the relationship between the doctor and Christian. Because of his nonthreatening, humble origins, Struensee is taken into the king's inner circle where his ideas about economic justice find root. Obviously, this doesn't sit well with Denmark's elite. Nor does the doctor's affair, which not only becomes a national scandal but is viewed by the king as a betrayal of their friendship. Tragedy, as you might expect, ensues.
A Royal Affair is as well-made as it is well-acted. The cast is terrific, though Mikkelsen sometimes restrains his passion too much. The pace is brisk, and the details are, in turn, both decorous and effectively gritty. It's always a pleasure to see a movie give attention to the ideas and visions of its characters, but the drama is, at times, a little too dry and earnest to hit Dangerous Liaisons heights (or lows, as the case may be). As a historical costume drama it acquits itself ably. But as popular cinema there isn't enough delight in the romance or nastiness in the political backstabbing to make it resonate.
A Royal Affair
Dir. Nikolaj Arcel; writ. Bodil Steensen-Leth, Rasmus Heisterberg, Nikolaj Arcel; feat. Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (R)
(Opening Friday at the Bijou)