Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Runtime: 137 minutes
A Royal Affair, Demark's 2012 submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, may be a historical costume drama, but it's no stuffy, overblown drama of outdated etiquette and powdered wigs. Based on true events in 18th century Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg's adaptation of Bodil Steensen-Leth's novel has a liveliness uncommon among similar films. There may indeed be a royal affair at the center of the narrative, but Arcel's film has much more on its mind than romantic entanglements. It is equally involved in the politics of the day, and, judging by the style and tone of the whole piece, it's safe to assume Arcel and Heisterberg are interested in the titular affair only in how it relates to the overarching political story.
Consider A Royal Affair the soft spoken less flamboyant cousin of Joe Wright's Anna Karenina (which also stars Alicia Vikander). Both approach romantic period pieces from strikingly different angles. But while Wright's film is more concerned with its conceit, Arcel's film forgoes intentional artifice in favor of subtle modernity in its aesthetic. Though visually muted when compared to Anna, Affair is a delightful surprise because of how seamlessly it incorporates its central romance into a much larger (and more important) story.
Vikander plays Caroline Mathilde, a member of English nobility married off to Denmark's King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard). Arranged marriages were the norm among high society for centuries, though Caroline's situation is quickly established as being one of the less fortunate occurrences. Aloof, immature, and at times unstable, Christian is a temperamental volcano of a man (or man-child) who has no qualms about sneaking off to whore houses only days after his new wife arrives and they consummate their union. It doesn't take long for the relationship to become chilly (surprise, surprise), which leaves Caroline with little to do but watch after her firstborn with no one to engage with. Christian, on the other hand, continues to visit the local women of the night, while also lazily sulking through meetings with the royal court, signing laws into effect that he barely understands.
Where things change for the unhappily married couple is upon the arrival of Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), Christian's newly appointed physician. A self-proclaimed libertine (and man of the Enlightenment), Johan is able to keep Christian's temper in check, and even turn it to good use. Most significantly, he helps Christian use his love of acting to increase his stature in the royal court. Christian may not understand the laws he pushes through, but with Johan's guidance he finally looks like he does. And, though initially repulsed by the newcomer, Caroline comes around to him as well. As the pair grow closer and closer, they begin together to work through sweeping social reforms across prudish Denmark, allowing the country to blossom. The nature of the laws (outside of their obvious functions) is often skimmed over, but Arcel infuses the process with an understated energy that it's difficult to see these scenes as anything but a boon.
But just as quickly as things start to look up, complications arise. In Anna Karenina, Vikander's Kitty watched, heartbroken, as potential suitor Count Vronsky swept Anna off of her feet in an intimate dance. Caroline, however, gets a special dance all of her own, and while it lacks that baroque staging and choreography of Anna and Vronsky's encounter, it is equally effective. The color scheme, built mostly around natural light, may be somewhat muted, but it only adds to the more understated atmosphere that pervades Arcel's film from beginning to end. This works because, as stated before, romance isn't the only thing on the film's agenda. A Royal Affair takes it time introducing Johann, before gradually working him into Caroline's life, and finally making him her lover. And even then there is so much more beyond the revelation of the forbidden romance.
The film may not aspire to the same political insight of Lincoln, but its incorporation of political matters and royal decrees is admirable for opening Affair up to exist as more than a romantic tragedy where society rips two lovers apart. The discovery of the affair carries profound risks for the social progress Johann and Caroline have worked so hard to enforce. By the time the film begins to tie up loose ends, one feels connected to Johann and Caroline not simply because of their affair, but because of what they accomplished as people who were interested in more than their own happiness at the top of society.
It helps tremendously that, despite not possessing a fully convincing romantic chemistry, Vikander and Mikkelsen click together on screen. Vikander has had a breakout year on screen, and is quickly establishing herself as a reliable actress capable of sweetness and vulnerability, but also a quiet strength. Mr. Mikkelsen, best known to American audiences as the villain in the Bond film Casino Royale (2006), with his slightly fishy face is an unconventional choice for Johann, but the actor is perfectly believable as his final scene is both understated and devastating. Folsgaard is entertainingly obnoxious as Christian, although the script thankfully gives him moments to be more than an oppressive boor. Equally intriguing, if less developed, is David Dencik as a highly orthodox member of the royal council left none too happy by Johann's social reforms. It's a role that, in decades past, would have likely included shades of over-the-top villainy, but is here allowed an appropriate level of naturalism. The film elegantly establishes the various players in the plot, and maneuvers them effortless as it builds towards its climactic moments.
Aiding the journey along are the lush musical contributions from Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort, lending the story a nice flourish of straightforward (yet un-cloying) romanticism. Yet the technical standout, amid the pretty sets and elaborate gowns, is Rasmus Videbaek's decidedly modern cinematography. Not only does the reliance on natural light lend the film a muted (but still lush) pallor, but the shallow focus and handheld work lend even the simplest of scenes a touch of modern energy, as if to shake us out of our expectations of how a period romance should be shot.
Under Arcel's guidance, the performers and technical collaborators come together to create a subdued, yet handsomely mounted and strongly executed tale. Mr. Arcel displays a level of artfulness that was sorely lacking in his previous film, the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His modern approach to Stieg Larson's novel was adequate an unremarkable. Yet apply that same technique to a costume drama, and the results something worth marveling. This is mature, smart filmmaking that, without going to radical lengths, breathes quiet new life into a genre too often held down by stiffness and a reluctance to let go of the ways of the past. How refreshing it it that Mr. Arcel and his team were willing to be part of the small group that took the plunge, and simply let go, as though it were nothing to fuss about whatsoever.