To be frank, A Royal Affair is easily one of the best films I have seen this year, and there is little doubt it will end up in my top five.
I say this with such conviction for a few reasons. Firstly, I love period pieces and all of the basic elements are not only gorgeously presented, but enhanced greatly by the layers of political, historical and dramatic truths in the film. Secondly, there is so much more happening in A Royal Affair and it is all balanced with deft direction and style, and lastly the incredible performances from the three protagonists not only add to the drama of the film, but actually go to great lengths to envision the true historical accounts of 1760's Copenhagen.
English princess Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) narrates her tale of woe, starting with her marriage to the childishly deranged King Christian VII (award winning Mikkel Følsgaard, in the performance of the year so far). Caroline is immediately rejected by the King, who prefers whore houses and gallivanting, and while hurt by his actions, she resigns herself to a life of relative solitude. This vastly changes, however, when the King returns from a tour of Europe with his new physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) in tow. He seems betrothed to entertain the king, not actually treating him for whatever condition he has. The Queen soon finds kinship with him based on their mutual ideals and philosophies, and this quickly leads to a clandestine affair. Wielding more power than a physician should, Johann has the ear of the king and inserts himself into a new council, spreading his ideas and quickly attracting many enemies. The outcome of this changes not only their love but Denmark itself forever.
Director Nikolaj Arcel has created a sumptuous world to accompany the intricate story. His attention to detail is impressive, leaving no unresolved elements of the plot and explaining every character's action. This is a true story, as such he treats it as an epic, spanning years in Copenhagen and beyond it to further parts of Europe. The intriguing, scandalous affair and the manipulative politics are woven together seamlessly. This is not just a one-note situation, there is intense scrutiny on court and council life, but even these elements are not heavy-handed and flow well into each detailed scene.
The luscious scenery and costumes are brought to life by the incredible cinematography that enhances each key scene and settles down in others where the plot is more prevalent. The dance hall scene, basically a staple for period pieces, is one such example. Here the cinematography is stunningly heightened, and without them saying anything, the feelings of Johann towards Caroline are wonderfully enunciated and do not come across as pretentious or arranged.
A Royal Affair is definitely a character piece, and despite the elaborate politics and depictions of royalty, the three protagonists remain core to the film. Johann is a complete idealist; his intentions are complex and the feelings for him change as the film progresses. He is torn between what he believes in and what he loves and the conflict is depicted masterfully by Mikkelsen.
The mad king Christian steals the show. He initially appears as a comic act, but his bizarre outbursts, antisocial nature and confused indifference soon become pitying notions as he is used and manipulated by many. The fine line Følsgaard portrays between madness and childishness is commendable and the character, although cruel to Caroline, becomes a tragic figure of paranoia and naivety.
Caroline, the queen, grows and recedes as the film progresses. Her actions are understandable based on how she is treated and throughout there is a feeling of unease, frustration and a strong dream-like melancholy that permeates throughout her chamber.
A Royal Affair concerns the affairs of the heart, of the state and of the mind. It is an incredible epic that contains an exhaustible plot that is nearly perfect in its execution. I highly recommend this absolute masterwork that, at 137 minutes, felt like no time at all.
(Review originally published in connection with the film's theatrical release in Australia in May 2012.)