“A Royal Affair” leads to enlightenment

Denmark’s Best Foreign Language nominee offers contemporary reflection

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
photo: Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in “A Royal Affair”
Rating: R Grade: B
Niels Arcel, best known in the U.S. as one of the screenwriters on the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” re-teams with Rasmus Heisterberg, his partner on the aforementioned film, to tackle Bodil Steensen-Leth’s novel about madness in the dawning age of enlightenment in Denmark. Steensen-Leth’s take focuses on the perspective of Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), the young Brit forced to marry Denmark’s Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the unstable young ruler who cares more for drinking, big-breasted women and fighting than the tedious affairs of state. The situation of Caroline’s loveless marriage and the tyranny of royal counsel turns dramatically with the arrival of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikklesen), a small-time German doctor with big philosophical ideas that run counter to the political and ideological establishment, such as it was at the time.

Intriguingly, it was not merely his politics that mattered, although he wrote anonymously in support of alternative positions like offering medical care to the poor, free speech and for a removal of the yoke of religion from the political process. In terms of real influence though, Struensee, brought in as a pawn to insinuate himself into the King’s inner circle to trigger a return to power for a few key court figures ousted by the new regime, introduces an enlightened approach to dealing with Christian’s “madness,” which feels far more contemporary in its implementation. During his initial interview with the King, Struensee listens to Christian after asking him to define the roots of his “madness” and then immediately assesses that the young man needs to be more actively engaged by and in the process of living, rather than locked in a prison of restrictions.

Upon hearing that the young King is a bit of an impetuous boozehound, the good doctor joins him for nights on the town, although it is obvious that he’s there as a chaperone of sorts to make sure things don’t get too far out of hand. Christian is a bright, articulate lover of theater, so Struensee fashions the court as a stage upon which Christian can act out his role as ruler, which eventually leads to Christian seizing control from his council – this “power” was always there for the taking, in fact. It is not long, however, before Struensee’s philosophies begin seeping into society as regulations and laws.

“Affair” will be compared to “The Madness of King George” due to the exploration of insanity on the throne, but where in “King George,” humor is used to draw audiences into the history, in this case, the title says it all; we are hooked here through sex. Where Christian fails to appreciate the subtle charms of his thoughtful young Queen, Struensee responds to her interest in banned literature and politically charged ideas, as well as her untapped emotional passions. While there are heated moments in the bedroom, the fiery nature of change takes fullest effect in the streets once the societal restraints are lifted.

We know, of course, that this loosening of the mores will not end well for any of the three main parties involved. Sex and power simply do not mix because such couplings never remain locked behind closed doors and once what is supposed to be private becomes public, it is transformed into a cudgel to savagely beat and defeat enemies with little regard for feeling or any notion of a greater good. The deepest wounds though are the ones suffered by the citizens of a nation that has been given a taste, a sense of what it ideally could be.

“A Royal Affair” begins and ends with Caroline Mathilde passing along her personal perspective on this tale of woe, but if audiences are daring enough to place themselves in Christian’s royal boots, it becomes apparent that he’s the perfect stand-in for the people of Denmark and maybe, even, for us today as we continue to realize our potential.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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