In the late 18th century, as America was on the cusp of revolting to free itself from the tyranny of arbitrary rule by people born to the privilege and laws, medicine and freedoms constrained by religious superstition, Europe was, state by state, wrestling with many of the same issues.
It was The Enlightenment, The Age of Reason, and if it’s a sketchy historical period for most Americans, the Danish drama “A Royal Affair” makes a stately, entertaining way of bringing us up to speed.
It’s a tragic romance, a tale of idealism, usurped power and reform ahead of its time, of palace intrigues, madness and forbidden love. And aside from the odd detail here and there, it’s mostly true.
In the 1760s, young princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) has been groomed in Britain to marry handsome King Christian VII of Denmark. She’s heard he loves the arts. She arrives only to learn she has been misinformed.
Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is bratty, temperamental and immature — an insecure, rude tantrum-tossing fop given to giggling fits. Suggest that his new bride has talent at the keyboard and he’s jealous, ordering her away from the pianoforte and to his side at court.
“Move your fat little thighs and have a seat,” he orders.
He’s a bit mad, but still functional enough to serve the purposes of the entrenched nobility that runs the government and his court, even his scheming step-mother, the Queen Dowager (Trine Dyrholm). Caroline, who has a dewy, mournful Emily Blunt quality thanks to Vikander, is trapped in a miserable marriage, surrounded by enemies.
When the king sets off on a long tour of Europe, Caroline is given some peace. And the king, thanks to the machinations of some exiled nobles who want a friendly voice to wrangle them back onto the court, is given a new physician. Johann Friedrich Struensee, played with smoldering earnestness by Mads Mikkelsen, the villain of “Casino Royale,” is “an Enlightenment Man,” a healer who treats his work as a higher calling, and an atheist intellectual who sees science, not superstition, as a way of treating illness and looking at the world.
Mikkelsen lets us see Struensee work out a means of tempering the king’s crazies. He indulges the monarch’s penchant for prostitutes, drink and brawling. He becomes confidante and confessor and turns Christian into a more reasonable, manageable mess. He could even be a help to the morose Caroline, something he suggests to Christian.
“Make her fun,” the king commands. “I want a fun queen.”
But as the queen and her doctor bond over his seditious enlightenment book collection, we see Struensee provide the queen a kind of fun the king did not have in mind.
Co-writer/director Nikolaj Arcel, who scripted “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” tells this story in a languorous fashion, pausing to let the doctor and the queen find their chemistry on the dance floor, then expressing it in the queen’s chambers. He takes the time to show the slow, idealistic machinations of the queen and her doctor, who took more and more power at court and used it, high-handedly, to bring Denmark into The Enlightenment.
That sluggish pace allows us to savor the performances, the meticulous sense of place and time, and the dread that builds in the back of the viewer’s mind. This will all come to tears, we just know it.
“A Royal Affair,” told mostly in Danish, with English subtitles, is a lovely history lesson, but a film without the spark of invention that makes this modern parable feel modern. “Anna Karenina,” for instance, clips along while “Affair” saunters, beautifully costumed actors having a leisurely gambol on the palace grounds. But Vikander, Mikkelsen and Følsgaard, who makes for a king just self-aware enough to understand the injustice, cruelty and scheming unfolding around him, make this history both riveting and tragic, and a story relevant in any age.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and some violent images
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Trine Dyrholm
Credits: Directed by Nikolaj Arcel, written by Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, based on the historical novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 2:17