Nikolaj Arcel’s 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) is an absolute delight and a visual feast for the senses. I recently watched Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film Another Round (Druk), which also stars my favourite actor Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, The Hunt, Valhalla Rising, Casino Royale, At Eternity’s Gate, Arctic), and it was also excellent, and not just an essential rumination on alcoholism, masculinity, maintaining and balancing adulthood, and more, but also a powerful affirmation of life, especially in light of the death of Vinterberg’s daughter, who died days into the shoot (and you can feel her presence in a beautiful way as you watch the film). Watching Another Round inspired me to dig through more of Mads’ (actually pronounced “Mass” rather than “Mads”) Danish filmography, especially since there are so many buried treasures. He’s also great in The Hunt, Pusher 1 and 2, and Adam’s Apples (but such a good person should not have to suffer as he does), among others. I had a hard time getting into Flickering Lights or Men and Chickens because I didn’t appreciate or understand the humour as much as I wanted to, and I look forward to seeing him in The Green Butchers and After the Wedding (any other Mads recommendations are welcome too!). A Royal Affair is indeed a buried treasure among others.
A Royal Affair is set in the late 18th century, a transitional period in which Enlightment philosophy and ideas and progressive reform clashed with religion and conservative thinking (sound familiar?), and it tells the story of Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander before she was super famous – of course, she’s absolutely gorgeous and speaks beautiful Danish too – what can’t she do? ;)), who moves to Denmark to marry the mentally deranged and puerile king Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). Seeing it from her perspective is very enlightening, particularly how arranged marriages could result in an absolute nightmare, as we see from her very first encounter with Christian, who I wouldn’t put in charge with a potato gun. Her married life is just as unfulfilling and unsatisfying, and it makes us sympathise with the state of her marriage. Naturally, it is refreshing when the German physician Dr Johann Friedrich Struensee (our Mads) is hired as the royal physician, and they form a deep, passionate, and intimate relationship behind the king’s back. Their chemistry is red hot too – I just wanted to see him jump into that bathtub with her, and I like how it deals with the taboo of an extramarital affair because we feel the connection through their POVs, and it is so much more emotionally gratifying to see them together than with Christian, who I came to despise and loathe immensely. Mads and Vikander’s relationship here is not just lustful either, but very emotionally connected, and perhaps metaphorically representative of their idealistic values and agenda.
Struensee is also historically responsible for pushing for much of the progressive reform which continues to inspire and inform Denmark today. But at the time, such reform (such as opening orphanages for homeless children) was seen as “dangerously radical” (interesting how conservatives in America today think socializing higher education and healthcare is “dangerously radical”), and Struensee faces resistance from the church (in the form of the repulsive priest Ove Høegh-Guldberg, an absolute snake and a fucking Judas) and the queen mother Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (another snake). They are also strongly opposed to the royal affair as it becomes more well known, and the ending of the film will break your heart, but the acting across the board is excellent, especially from the core three leads, and the costume design and set design look outstanding. I admit that the 18th century is not my favourite historical period (I do love pirates and the French Revolution and ironically even the excesses and indulgences of the Sun King), but having taught a 18th-century literature course this term really made me gain a greater appreciation of it, as does this film. One of the great Danish films that absolutely deserves to be seen, and also an important part of European history.