Starring: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Følsgaard
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Running Time: 137 mins
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) is a Danish film about the story of the young Queen Mathilde of England, married to the unstable Danish King Christian VII in the late 18th Century, but neglected upon her arrival in his court, until she starts a secretive but passionate love affair with a man working as doctor to the King.
As far as period dramas go, A Royal Affair has to be one of the most historically fascinating and eye-opening films of the decade, brilliantly accounting the events of the late 1760s-70s in the Danish court that would rival any historical drama of the modern day. However, as much as it proves to be a riveting history lesson, it doesn’t quite have the charisma or style to prove an enthralling watch all the way through, and with a frustratingly misfocused opening two acts, the movie is really quite a drag to get through.
Above all, the problem with this film is that it doesn’t make the decision early enough to prioritise what is by far its most interesting and entertaining story. For the majority of the first two acts, the film focuses on the relationship between the lead trio of characters, that is Queen Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard) and his doctor, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen).
Now, while there’s a good bit of romantic intrigue from time to time, most of that story really doesn’t offer up many big surprises. While starting strongly with a look at the dysfunctional relationship between the queen and her mentally unstable king, the movie descends through the middle act into more of a generic soap opera, building up to a scandal of royal proportions, but without offering anything else to keep you fully captivated as you await the inevitable twist.
Of course, it’s unfair to call the film predictable – given that it’s an account of real, historical events – but what I can say is that A Royal Affair just doesn’t use those events in the right way for the first two acts, dragging along like a generic soap opera, rather than instilling some real, intense emotional or even political drama into the mix to add another layer of intrigue.
However, the saving grace for A Royal Affair comes in its third act, when it completely changes tack and moves to becoming a riveting, brutal and often even thought-provoking political drama. I can’t say I was ever bowled over by the first hour and a half of romantic drama, but once the film shifts focus from young Queen Mathilde and her affair with the King’s doctor to Johann Struensee, the King’s doctor himself, things get really interesting.
If you know about the history of Denmark, then this story will come as no surprise to you, but if not, then I’ll leave the events to surprise you, because the political drama and chaos that’s created in the final third of the film with the growing influence of Struensee upon the King is absolutely fascinating.
No longer the relatively simplistic romantic drama of the early acts, A Royal Affair offers up a riveting and brutal account of the world of politics in the Danish court, with the toing-and-froing of traditionalists and those influenced by the modern ideas of the Renaissance. In the midst of all this, the Danish people also get a look in, and as the film opens up its scope from just three characters to be a story of countrywide proportions, the depth and significance of the story at hand becomes apparent.
Because finally, after all the chaos that unfolds in the story, the film ends on a brilliantly poignant note about the conflict between conservatism and progression, positing that while the importance of progression is undeniable, its implementation, however well-meaning or well-informed, needs a general consensus rather than being forced through.
It’s a brilliant, level-headed political message for this day and age, and one that brings an almost exhilarating final act of political chaos to a powerful end.
So, with such a strong finale, I left A Royal Affair with a good impression. Ultimately a riveting and thought-provoking drama, there is a story to appreciate here, but the problem is just that it takes a good while to get there, through a dragging, frustratingly misfocused first two acts that just don’t have the depth or intrigue at any point to really impress, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.0 overall.