En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, Den/Czech/Ger/Swe 2012)

Mads Mikkelson as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline (photo by Jiri-Hanzl)

A Royal Affair was a major box-office hit in Denmark in March and has received some rave reviews in the UK and other European territories. It also appears to have done very well in Australia and it will open in North America in November through Magnolia. Perhaps we are seeing the return of costume dramas? The young female lead in this film, Alicia Vikander from Sweden, is next up in the Joe Wright/Keira Knightley version of Anna Karenina. She’s very good and definitely a name to watch.

A Royal Affair is an enjoyable and interesting film for many reasons. In one sense it is a familiar Nordic co-production, a €6 million budget film that easily holds its own against much more expensive British, French or Hollywood productions – demonstrating once again how Lars von Trier’s Zentropa has the capacity to be a major European producer. In the UK, part of the fascination with the film comes from the success of recent Danish and Swedish TV drama series showing on BBC4. The high quality of the performances in the film is enhanced for audiences who can also enjoy spotting familiar faces in the background. What is unfamiliar is the history – I suspect that the intricacies of Scandinavian and German history in the eighteenth century don’t feature strongly in the curriculum in most Anglophone countries. I confess that I had to do some digging to fully appreciate the story which is fairly closely based on the facts of a real ‘royal affair’.

Alicia Vikander plays Caroline Matilda, a member of the British Royal family and younger sister of the Prince of Wales. (Alicia’s father was German of course since the Hanoverian family ascended the British throne in 1701). Her arranged marriage to Christian VII lands her in Copenhagen in 1766 (when the real Caroline was just 15, he was 17) having to learn yet another language (she already spoke three or four). She is beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, but unfortunately Christian is an immature young man who may be mentally ill. Certainly he is unwilling or at least unconcerned about his marriage duties or running his country and Denmark-Norway is a reactionary state governed by a conservative council of ministers. Caroline herself is interested in the Enlightenment and is taken aback when her books are confiscated as ‘unsuitable’. She becomes embroiled, unwittingly at first, in a political narrative in which one group seeks to smuggle Enlightenment ideas into the court, exploiting the weakness of the king, while another, led by the Dowager Queen, seeks to replace the King with his younger step-brother. The agent of the Enlightenment group is Johan Struensee, a German doctor who is appointed as the King’s doctor. He manages to develop a strong bond with the King – and also with the Queen.

Struensee is played by Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps the biggest Danish star of the moment. He’s very good of course but perhaps just a little too rugged as a doctor and self-educated scholar. The King is played by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who won the Berlin Film Festival acting prize for his performance – while still at drama school. It is certainly a remarkable performance. The three central characters are ably supported in what is on the one hand a relatively conventional ‘illicit romance’ narrative but on the other a powerful political thriller. The romance works pretty well I think and the costumes are gorgeous – I can imagine that the film will be enjoyed by the audience that sought out The Duchess.

The first few scenes of the film seem to promise a strong visual style but really what follows is fairly conventional and presumably limited by budget considerations. It still looks wonderful, however. More to the point, there is so much crammed in to the 137 minute running time that too extravagant a mise en scène might obscure the plot developments. I confess that my attention did wander in the middle of the film – but only for a moment. The script by director Nikolaj Arcel and his writing partner from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rasmus Heisterberg is based on a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. I think it works very well though I do have a few queries. At one point the King is distracted by being ‘given’ a young African boy, almost as a pet or playmate. He is told that the boy escaped from a Dutch slavetrader’s ship. He is delighted by something so ‘novel’. However, Denmark had its own slave ports in West Africa in the eighteenth century. Is this a deliberate obfuscation? The other odd aspect of the plot is that although we meet Caroline’s mother at the beginning of the film, after that we never hear any more about her family. When Caroline is later in difficulties it seems surprising that she never contacts her brother – who was George III, the British monarch and one of the most powerful people in Europe. History seems to suggest that it was the German connection that was the problem. All the royal families of Northern Europe seem to have been interconnected and family relationships were somewhat fraught.

I surprised myself by feeling quite emotional at the end of the film, partly because of what happens to the characters and partly because of the political outcome – perhaps this is a romantic melodrama/political thriller? On the latter score my feeling was that it is all very well reading Rousseau and Voltaire but as a young Queen it is advisable to watch your back and to read Machiavelli.

The official UK trailer:


  1. Rona

    It was really well-made and engrossing – maintaining the balance between a romantic melodrama and the political thriller. Arcel co-wrote and directed Kongekabale (King’s Game (2004)) – modern story of political intrigue with Mads Mikkelsen’s elder brother (Lars – known to Forbrydelsen devotees as Troels from the first series) playing a ruthless spin doctor in government. I thought of that film whilst watching this one, because of their similarity in a desire to uncover how power changes ordinary people and how the aim of power is lost in the political manouevring. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard’s performance of the king was the central one, because its refusal to fall into unsympathetic cruelty or pathetic madness and instead walked a balanced line between them so that our sympathies couldn’t easily and simply fall to the two lovers Arcel, speaking at the Berlinale press conference, began by emphasising his interest in exploring Denmark’s own part in the Age of Enlightenment – and the story brings alive what the Age of the Enlightenment really meant – the difficulty of changing a medieval culture and freeing up power. Mads Mikkelsen, at the same press briefing, talks of Struensee moving from that position of idealist to dictator. There is a telling moment when Struensee, having abolished censorship, is forced to reintroduce it to protect his position and that of the queen from the rumours being printed about them and knows the implications of what he is doing. The film keeps all these ideas in tension so effectively through the characters through the expert performances. An aside – Louise Vesth, the producer, commented at the Berlinale that this project had circulated for years – a difficult one to make in a ‘small country with a small language’ – referring to the obvious difficulty in selling a Danish costume drama outside its own country potentially. Further evidence of the above comment in relation to the importance of Zentropa and Von Trier to the Danish film industry.

    In addition, Alicia Vikander (a Swedish actor) and Mads Mikkelsen have important currency as pan-European stars. There is a nice contrast – paralleling the central characters disparity in experience – in that Vikander is a year on from being identified as one of European Films’ Shooting Stars whilst Mikkelsen appeared in a number of European productions (as well as notching up a Bond villain along the way). His work with Dogme director Susanne Bier on her phenomenal Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts(2002)) and Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding(2006)) show him playing men in particular crises and not entirely fitting within their own social settings (something on view in Struensee’s invasion of the world of the court). These characters are often, as played, powerful but not always in control of what they are doing or what is happening to them. I thought his ‘untidy’ and bigger physique helped to emphasise his role as the disruptive interloper which I thought the film shots were often trying to emphasise. He has worked last with Thomas Vinterberg, a founding member of the Dogme tradition, on Jagten (The Hunt) – hailed as a near masterpiece at Cannes this year and winning Mikkelsen the best actor award. Another boost for this small country and for the global currency of its films.

    The link to the 2012 Berlinale press conference (part 1) is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDdGHAGJyZ4 and part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9_XZaZICno.


    • Roy Stafford

      I take your point about Mads Mikkelsen. Perhaps my problem is that I associate him with roles in films like Valhalla Rising. I’m also guilty of making assumptions about Enlightenment scholars. The general point is, however, that he is the star actor. I don’t think you can say that Vikander is a star yet so he is the only one of the three leads with a star persona that at least potentially informs an audience’s reading of the character.

      I want to see a follow up to this film which explores the consequences of Denmark’s anti-German stance in the 1790s and subsequent support for Napoleon – which eventually saw the break-up with Norway and the loss of Danish territory in Schleswig and Holstein. The politics of this period are fascinating but British/French cinema focusing on this period tends to go for action.


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