The Oscar race for best foreign-language film rarely comes without a helping of muslin-and-bonnet dramas stuffed with misbehaving royals, masked balls and burgeoning job opportunities for food stylists. As heritage cinema goes, however, the year's Academy Award entry from Denmark is a firecracker.
Though it's dressed to kill in regulation brocade and upswept hairdos, this fact-based tale of high-born love and betrayal has a great deal more than Danish pastry on its mind. A Royal Affair is far from the first movie to show how the road to democracy is almost always washed with blood, but its release is especially timely as we witness the savagery accompanying regime change the world over.
The year is 1776, and as the rest of Europe emerges from feudal darkness, Denmark — widely admired today as a model of freedom, tolerance and benign government — remains mired in medieval fundamentalism, its impoverished people ground under the heel of a reactionary politburo whose honchos use their unstable young king, Christian VII, as a rubber stamp for maintaining despotic rule. As played by the terrific theater actor Mikkel Folsgaard, Christian is, to put it charitably, a wild card who hangs out with hookers when he should be performing husbandly duties for a new English wife, Queen Caroline Matilda, whom he calls "Mother."
Played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, an insufficiently spirited looker who's more suitably cast as demure Kitty in the upcoming Anna Karenina, the queen languishes, lonely and bored to death. She perks up — as who among us would not — with the arrival of the slow-burning Danish superstar Mads Mikkelson. Best known as the baddie from the Bond movie Casino Royale, Mikkelson plays Struensee, the King's German physician, a devotee of Enlightenment rationalism and a shrewd reader of character who has His Wacky Majesty tamed and eating out of his hand in no time at all.
Mikkelson has a granite jaw, cheekbones that threaten to fly off his face, and a penetrating bedroom stare that quickly proves irresistible to the neglected queen. Soon Struensee and Caroline are trading more than quotes from Rousseau and Voltaire; as if steaming up the satin sheets and devouring forbidden literature weren't risky enough, the lovers form an improbable but potent alliance with Christian to crank out a slew of democratic reforms designed to transform Denmark into a modern nation-state.
Needless to say, the ruling zealots, aided by a scheming dowager (Trine Dyrholm) with her own designs on the throne, aren't about to let all this progress, never mind their fringe benefits, pass without a fight. Their brutal resistance, and the blowback from Struensee's unfettered belief in science and reason, exact a terrible cost in the short run while laying the groundwork for a complete reinvention of Danish society.
While it's lavish and lush in all the expected costume-drama ways, A Royal Affair never bogs down in period detail. What drives the film, along with great acting, is the appetite of director Nikolaj Arcel and his boisterous co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg ("I want a fun queen!" wails Christian) for the queasy workings of political gamesmanship both above and below board.
Wily fixer though he is, Struensee is an idealist whose belief in the persuasive power of sweet reason is both his greatest strength and the Achilles heel that threatens to undo him. With judiciously placed disinformation and a rabble-rousing appeal to the population's dormant xenophobia, even those who stand to benefit most from government reforms can be mobilized to look on and cheer while, one way or another, the agents of change are made to pay for their passions.
In hindsight — and in a hasty postscript to the film — we know that Denmark eventually saw the light. A Royal Affair lays out the carnage and cunning it took to get there, but though Arcel never winks at the audience or belabors parallels with the present, in a weird way his retelling of a story every Dane knows holds out a small hope that someday soon, the brutal struggles for freedom from autocracy we see all over the world might also bear fruit. (Recommended)