A Royal Affair Reviews
A lush, with beautiful costumes and exquisite set design, and sprawling epic, this film is extraordinary. The three primary characters, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, and Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, are compelling and interesting. Struensee's commitment to post-Enlightenment ideals and steely eyed romanticism make for a compelling leading man, and he perfectly complemented by Caroline's steadfastness. Christian VII is much like George III, and both make interesting characters.
I learned a ton about Denmark and Danish history, and the conflict between religion and progress, faith and science makes for a timeless story.
Overall, I enjoyed this film immensely, and all baseball fans will be distracted by how similar Mikkelsen looks compared to Freddy Garcia.
Every quivering lip, every lustful gaze. Not a moment rings false in Nikolaj Arcel's harrowing account of a love story so powerful, that it would change the fate of an entire nation. Set in the latter half of the 18th century, it stars Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Caroline Mathilde, who becomes queen of Denmark, as she moves away from her royal residence in England to marry King Christian VII. But whatever optimism she had for an agreeable life with him, soon dies away as Christians turns out to be an emotionally unstable man-child, with a psychologically unsound Peter Pan syndrome. Not unlike Mozart, only decadent, selfish and with little care for his newly arrived queen.
All the while, the cultural movement that would later be known as The Age of Enlightenment is quickly spreading through Europe, now knocking at the door of Denmark as well. However, where Caroline admires the philosophies of free-thinking reformists like Rousseau and Voltaire, the Danish court stands firmly against it, banning all literature associated with those ideas.
Sunk in melancholy, with her husband the king growing ever more insane, she accepts the only purpose she has left, as in giving birth to a future regent. But then, just as hope seems lost, everything changes. A German intellectual, Johann Friedrich Struensee, is employed by King Christian as his personal physician. Played to the hilt by an outstanding Mads Mikkelsen, Johann and Queen Caroline find an instant attraction to each other, which flourishes into a full-out love affair, as dangerous as it is passionate.
I've seen quite a few period films in my days, but none have left me so stirred as this lavishly crafted masterstroke of a film. Lacing groundbreaking historic events with the forbidden desires of the two kindred spirits, it creates intrigues of such potency that you invest yourself completely. Having lived in Denmark in my younger years, where I also met my first love, made the experience all the more close to home.
Filled with warmth, humor, elegance and splendor, A Royal Affair was even more fantastic than I had hoped. The way Johann's and Caroline's affections for each other brought freedom to an entire country is inspiring beyond words. Their sacrifices also remind us how the liberties we enjoy today ought not to be taken for granted. There were, after all, those who paid for it dearly in blood, sweat and tears.
Tears are what I came to shed as well, as an effect of its devastating character fates. I won't go into any exact details here, in order to avoid spoilers, but those who have seen it or know their history, will understand what I'm referring to. A majestic, audacious and beautifully acted drama, which bares itself like few other films, with a transcendent depiction of one of history's greatest love stories. Truly a must-see, if only to be swept away by the vulnerable, heart-rending performances of its two leading stars.
With all this in mind, you could be forgiven for going into A Royal Affair with very low expectations - or perhaps, for not going in at all. But on this occasion, that would have been a great pity, since it is one of the best films of 2012 thus far and a demonstration that, despite the stereotypes, all genres and stories have a degree of validity when they are done properly. In this case, director Nikolaj Arcel and executive producer Lars von Trier have demonstrated that there is more to the period drama than pretty costumes; there is plenty of room for political intrigue and philosophical discussion too.
One of the problems with making any kind of historical drama is the pacing. Because the characters in question did not have access to high-speed broadband, mobile phones or any of the technology we take for granted, there is a natural need to move the action at a slower pace for the sake of being realistic. On the other hand, the film still needs to flow fast enough to prevent things from becoming tedious, and in order for the film to demonstrate the validity of re-examining said period and the lessons, personal or political, contained therein.
Different directors emphasise one aspect over the other to serve the material they are working with. When Stanley Kubrick made Barry Lyndon, he very deliberately slowed the action down so that we had to accept the mechanics of the time period and force ourselves to become entrenched in this society. Such an approach wouldn't work with The Madness of King George, or indeed The King's Speech, since these rely more greatly on irreverence and a more candid demonstration of a nation's values.
What Arcel accomplishes with A Royal Affair is a period drama which is allowed to move slowly and patiently without ever making us feel like it is doing so for its own sake. His camerawork is very considered without feeling overly choreographed, and his cinematography is painterly without being overbearing. As a result of both of these, you never feel like the film is attempting to make you fall in love with the scenery, in the hope that empathy with the characters will come if you first learn to appreciate their lifestyle. The film is much closer to the works of Peter Greenaway, in which the beautiful landscapes serve as a grounding, from which we can discern clues and unravel the characters.
While A Royal Affair never feels like a weighty film, in terms of being burdened down by the storytelling, it does tackle a number of very interesting ideas and themes in an engaging and intelligent way. The film is set in 18th-century Denmark, a country in which the essentially mediaeval institutions of state and society are being threatened or challenged by the spread of the Enlightenment. Because the story precedes the French Revolution, Arcel attempts something arguably more audacious than films set in that period. Rather than showing the consequences of the Enlightenment ideas, he is interested in how these ideas infiltrate the corridors of power, influencing the powers-that-be and eventually supplanting them.
There are comparisons with The Madness of King George in terms of the character dynamic in which this idea is introduced. In both stories the royal is portrayed as old-fashioned, out of touch and quite literally insane, and in both cases a country doctor or commoner becomes the royal physician against His Majesty's wishes and inveigles his way into his inner circle. King Christian has some of the same foppish, beastly quality of Rupert Everett's Prince Regent, or even Hugh Laurie's version of the same character from Blackadder the Third.
But whereas Dr. Willis (Ian Holm) is a believer in old-fashioned religious discipline, Johann Streussee (Mads Mikkelson) is the very embodiment of reason, democracy and liberty. The film is refreshing in that it characterises Streussee as something other than a clichéd Machiavellian, matching his political rise to genuine, beneficial social change rather than just showing him consolidate power at the expense of the people. The ideas he espouses go from illicit copies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to daily discussions at the royal court.
The film is also effective in showing the blurring of personal and political ends. Arcel specifically set out to tell the story from the queen's perspective, contrasting her revulsion at her husband with the passion she feels for Struensee. We are left wondering whether the ideals prompted the romance or whether the romance prompted Struensee to push on with his reforms quicker. What is for certain is that the characters' emotional trauma is a genuine source of tension, even though we know from the beginning that the queen will survive.
Perhaps the most interesting idea in A Royal Affair is its contrast between the ideals of the Enlightenment and Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur, often considered the definitive version of the legends of King Arthur. There is a great irony at the centre of the film, namely that a man who embodies the Enlightenment in every way should fall by ancient, mediaeval, even primitive means. It is not the reactionaries which are the direct cause of Struensee's fall: it is his affair with the queen, and the resulting overconfidence that he will not be caught.
While the Arthur reference is introduced a little obviously, once realised it plays out beautifully, as the whole film is reshaped into an intriguing retelling of the legend. King Christian is Arthur, who has power but is emotionally impulsive and lacks independence. Queen Caroline is Guinevere, Arthur's beautiful wife who becomes instantly smitten by the King's must trusted knight. And Struensee is Lancelot, whose affair with the queen ultimately causes the collapse of the whole kingdom. In the later stages the levels of jealousy and pride coursing through the characters' veins rivals anything in Shakespeare's Othello.
It's a mixture of cliché and lazy journalism to describe Scandinavian drama as bleak, but A Royal Affair earns this moniker regardless of its country of origin. Its plot is as twisty and as treacherous as I, Claudius, and in different hands it would have made a very interesting TV miniseries. Even in its most sumptuous and beautifully shot scenes, like the garden party or the riding in the countryside, there is a feeling of dread or a great burden lurking in the background. While the film never quite matches Barry Lyndon in this regard, it comes flatteringly close.
The film is anchored by three outstanding performances. Alicia Vikander is thoroughly captivating as the Queen, blending strength, beauty and vulnerability as skilfully as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons. Mikkel Følsgaard gives the foppish King Christian an unnerving mixture of playfulness and cruelty which holds our gaze. But both are ultimately overshadowed by Mads Mikkelson, best known for playing Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Mikkelson has the face of a weary, burdened man: he bears the scars of personal suffering and carries the woes and fears of his comrades on his shoulders. His execution scene is one of the most emotive in the film, in which his deep despair is matched by the silent crowd, who have sent one of their own to an awful death.
A Royal Affair is a really great film which demonstrates the power and weight of costume dramas when they are done correctly. Nikolaj Arcel utilises his three central performers to the full, surrounding them with beautiful compositions and feeding them plenty of material on which to chew. It never quite scales the heights achieved by Barry Lyndon or The Draughtman's Contract, in terms of visual poetry or historical insight, but that is a relatively petty criticism for what is definitely one of the very best films of the year.
As bad as any of that may sound, Rantzau(Thomas W. Gabrielsson) and Brandt(Cyron Melville) want back in to court, which is no surprise considering they currently reside in the armpit of the universe in Germany. To that aim, they recruit the least likely conspirator ever, Johann Struensee(Mads Mikkelsen), a local doctor who is very interested in the ideas of the enlightenment, to be the new royal physician.
While not being exactly emotionally resonant, "A Royal Affair," unlike most other period pieces, is a movie of ideas. Sadly, most of these ideas feel imported from a more recent age, as Caroline recalls events from her exiled future with perfect hindsight. As she makes clear early on, this was a very different age of the monarchy ascendant but not naturally all powerful. Take Christian VII for example, who vacillates between childlike and frat boy, at the beck and call of the nobles before Caroline and Johann conspire to take him in their direction, even as they are on the side of the angels. So, ironically enough, the movie is also not necessarily anti-monarchy; it just asks for a responsible ruler, while pointing how hard it is to rule even a small country. It is this system that Johann finds appealing, as a reformer is naturally drawn to the seat of power.
While not exactly deserving to be sprawling, this film's intriguing and ultimately generally well-handled story is conceptually meaty enough to warrant something of a hefty length, and at just over two hours and a quarter, this film appears to boast a comfortable runtime, but ultimately achieves its length through a few problematic means, particularly pacing unevenness, which leaves certain aspects to feel glossed over and hurried, if explored at all, and quite a few other aspects to drag out, or at least feel like they're dragging out, thanks to atmospheric slow spells. I wasn't exactly going into this film expecting a bore, but the final product is livelier than I feared it would be, and yet, with that said, Nikolaj Arcel can go only so far with liveliness as a storyteller before slipping up, thus leaving more than a few bits of this film to quiet down a bit too much and bland up quite a bit, very rarely to a dull point, but consistently to a disengaging point. These particular extremes in the film's sloppy pacing range distance emotional resonance a smidge, but not as much as they distance quite a bit of fluidity to pacing, until what you end up with is a paceless opus that may make most every one of its beats compelling enough to sustain your investment thoroughly, but still finds time to meander along as it treads its 137-minute course with limited pacing. Plot structuring problems really aren't as severe as I make them sound, but they are common and undeniable, though not the only problems within Nikolaj Arcel's and Rasmus Heisterberg's script, whose characterization is handled well enough directorially to genuinely hit, but sometimes feels a touch tainted by subtlety issues that aren't too considerable, but betray a bit of genuineness, particularly in the drama department, which will occasionally slip into ever so unfortunate histrionics. The genuineness in this film's directorial execution is enough to dilute the stings of subtlety issues, but the point is that the film isn't quite as consistently comfortable with its dramatic aspects as it probably should be, thus full dramatic impact suffers, then takes some additional beatings from the film's simply being, if nothing else, a rather conventional historical drama, complete with formula tropes that leave the film to, after a while, take on some sense of predictability. It's not too hard to see where this film is going, and while the journey that this film takes to a foreseeable point is engrossing enough for your investment to never go distanced too far, trouble with plot originality and structure, as well as atmospheric pacing, can be found more than a few times throughout this film, thus making for a rewarding final product that still could have been a bit better. Still, do note that I did, in fact, just deem this film rewarding, because even though this film isn't quite all that upstanding, or even all that refreshing, it is strong, with plenty of engagement value and, of course, artistic value.
Though not entirely breathtaking, Rasmus Videbæk's cinematography for this film is nothing short of excellent, with striking detail and distinct lighting, which will often play with coloring to give the film's visual style a kind of fitting warmth that attracts consistently, especially when we reach relatively rare, but worthwhile occasions in which magic falls into the path of Videbæk's photographic eye and delivers on a truly stunning shot or two. Photographically, the film accels and finds its visual style firmly reinforced, while setting goes brought to life by Niels Sejer's production designs and Manon Rasmussen's costume designs, which are essentially exceptional in their reviving 18th century Denmark with a kind of broad intricacy that captures and sells you on the scope of this film's environment and era, but not at the expense of some restraint that secures you down to earth and gives you a kind of intimate acquaintance within the world that this film's upstanding production value brings to life without getting to the point of style over substance. A lot of care clearly went into this film's technical value, and the results are fruitful, delivering on upstanding production value and striking photographic tastes that breathe much life into both style and substance, though perhaps the former most of all, as substance stands pretty strong on its own. There's not too much that's all that unique within this film's fact-based subject matter, or at least not in the execution that further dilutes substance impact through pacing and subtlety issues, so we're not quite looking at the makings of a great film, or even an all that excellent film, but you'd be hard pressed to not be intrigued by this film's, as the Rotten Tomatoes consensus put it, "juicy story", whose historical, dramatic, thematic and character depths could have hit harder in the long run, but hit hard enough in concept to, as the great Leonardo DiCaprio would probably put it, claim your curiosity, while Nikolaj Arcel, as director, truly claims your attention. Arcel does only so much to compensate for the hiccups in his and Rasmus Heisterberg's screenplay, but compensation is here, and can be found throughout the film, gracing the atmosphere with a kind of inspired intrigue that doesn't always deliver on the fun factor, but certainly draws some range out of this film's layered story, especially when the more effective dramatic points come into play and deliver on some pretty effective emotional resonance. It's this film's ending that may deliver on the sharpest emotional punctuation, but most every part of the film goes saved as strong by the inspiration within Arcel's efforts, and goes carried by the inspiration within this film's lead performers, some of whom are a bit of material consistency punch-up away from being all-out remarkable, with Mads Mikkelsen portraying Johann Friedrich Struensee's descent from smooth respectability to a man threatened by his own love with layers and emotional range that are just as present in our younger, less experienced talents, from Mikkel Følsgaard - whose charming, when not either sympathetic or even kind of scary portrayal of the spoiled king is more convincing than the writing of Christian VII - to the lovely Alicia Vikander, whose often atmospheric portrayal of a woman who is being driven deeper and deeper into entrapment by unhappy relationships is particularly enthralling. Whether they be veterans or newcomers, most everyone in this film engages, with the leads really commanding your attention, which shouldn't drift away too often, because with all of its lapses in full effectiveness, this film feels inspired enough to reward as a strong drama.
To conclude this affair, when pacing isn't uneven, it's simply too slow for its own good, thus emotional resonance goes distanced a bit, and further driven back by subtlety issues and conventionalism that help in making this film a predictable one that falls short of what it could have been, but still accels as strong, with a striking visual style and remarkable production value that compliment the selling of this film's compelling subject matter, which is truly brought to life by Nikolaj Arcel's inspired direction, and carried by our lead cast members' inspired performances, thus making "A Royal Affair" a generally compelling historical drama that has its shortcomings, but nevertheless perseveres as rewarding.
3/5 - Good
I heard of the movie competing at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival but somehow the title never got me intrigued enough to see it. Of course, thanks to my wife, we watched it and I can say I now understand why this film has been selected as the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards and was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 70th Golden Globe Awards. It is well researched, well presented work of art in co-production among Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg started the writing process by reading the 1999 novel The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist, which is based on the events surrounding Johann Friedrich Struensee's time at the Danish court. The exclusive film rights for the novel were already sold to a company which had been struggling for over a decade to make a large-scale adaptation in English, and did not want to sell the rights to the producer Zentropa. That's why they decided to continue the research and the film was eventually credited as based on Bodil Steensen-Leth's erotic novel Prinsesse af blodet, which tells the story from the perspective of the queen, Caroline Mathilde. I think that this way the story was even more interesting and personal! The film's perspective and characterisation did still remain highly influenced by Enquist's version, in particular in the portrayal of Struensee as an idealistic promoter of freedom of speech. To avoid conflicts about rights, Enquist was contacted to clarify some instances of what he had made up and what was based on documented events, and a person was employed specifically to compare the screenplay and the novel to guarantee that there won't be any copyright issues later on.
If you are in a mood to watch a (long 137 minutes) movie with excellent acting following one of the best scripts about historical events written recently with costumes out of this world - this is something which might interest you.
While he travels, it becomes clear that he requires a physician to keep some of his more excessive behaviour in check. So while he takes a break in Germany, Dr Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is engaged to keep King Christian under his care, to divert the King and to learn the ways in court.
The Queen resents Struensee and his hold over the King, but once she flicks through the doctor's bookcase and finds that he has similar tastes to herself, she is intrigued. As their friendship develops and they swap ideas about the value of Enlightenment, it becomes apparent to others at court, even if not to themselves, that there is a romance developing.
Struensee, albeit not portrayed as a man greedy for power, soon discovers his ability to influence the affairs of states and, given his radical political ideas, he cannot resist using his influence with the unbalanced king to implement them.
Caroline and Struensee persuade the king and in the process create enemies at court. Their affair becomes the talk of the town, and their positions compromised until even the King can't ignore the innuendo. Caroline is protected by the crown, but Struensee has no such protection and as a foreigner he is despised.
It turns out that Dr Struensee and Queen Caroline were ahead of their time, and their ideas were finally implemented during the 55 year reign of Queen Caroline's son, Frederick VI.