A Royal Affair
A Royal Affair has been chosen as this year’s Danish representative at the Academy Awards. We won’t know whether or not it has made the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film until January, but in the meantime we can certainly understand its selection. It tells the story of King Christian VII, his queen Caroline Mathilde and his personal physician, Dr. Johann Struensee, which also happens to be a tale of madness, infidelity, political intrigue and death. Though taught in Danish schools, this slice of history remained little-known outside of its home country, or at least until 1999. That year saw the publication of Per Olov Enquist’s novel, The Visit of the Royal Physician, which would be translated into 34 languages and sell over a million copies. A big screen equivalent couldn’t fail, surely, and so an immense budget of 46 million krone was gathered for A Royal Affair. It’s all up there on the screen, too: not just in the opulent period recreation, but also in the return of Mads Mikkelsen to his native land following Hollywood dalliances with James Bond, Titans and Musketeers.
Mikkelsen plays Struensee, though this is very much a three-hander rather than a bona fide starring vehicle. Caroline Mathilde (played by Alicia Vikander) has arguably the greatest prominence given that she also serves as our guide. A Royal Affair is framed in flashback, told by Mathilde through a letter to her children. Known in Denmark as Caroline Mathilde of Great Britain, she left England aged just fifteen to marry King Christian VII. As her voice-over explains this was the life she had “prepared and longed for” and yet it didn’t turn out quite as she expected. The King (relative newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) was something of an oddball, driven to childish outbursts and potentially suffering from some kind of mental illness. He prefers his dog to his new wife, demeans her in public (decrying her “little fat thighs” in front of court) and, once she has produced an heir, resorts to prostitutes rather than the marital bed. This also coincides with a rapid decline in his health, prompting Struensee to come under his employ and, very slowly, begin to exert an influence. The doctor is a man of the Enlightenment, a reader of Rousseau and Voltaire, and a man of the people. Such ideas sit uneasily in court, earning him enemies from those who seek to maintain the status quo. And his affair with Caroline Mathilde hardly helps matters, of course.
Despite the title, this royal affair figures only in part. Writer and director Nikolaj Arcel (best known for adapting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on its first cinematic outing) is much more interested in the dynamic between the three main players and their ever-shifting relationships. The one between Struensee and the King is perhaps the most intriguing, primarily because the King is also the most intriguing character. Følsgaard’s performance is little short of superb (he deservedly picked up the Best Actor gong at this year’s Berlin Film Festival) and really gets to grips with the contradictions within. Whilst it would be easy to portray King Christian VII as a raving, insensitive lunatic, Følsgaard seeks to highlight the fears and insecurities behind such behaviour. There’s a beautiful moment where he imitates Struensee’s gestures as they lark about the summer residence. It perfectly demonstrates his childishness and naïveté as well as, perhaps, his unsuitability as a monarch; he just needs a friend, not the ultimate responsibility.
By comparison Struensee is a touch too whiter-than-white. A fearless atheist in a religious age, he is also the author of subversive literature (within Denmark’s censorious age that is), perfectly charming, utterly noble, entirely selfless and so on. Indeed, adulterer is the only black mark against him, albeit with a woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a husband who cares little for her, certainly within a sexual context. Similarly, some of the supporting characters can be a little one-note with Trine Dyrholm (a familiar face on British screens thanks to Festen, In Your Hands and In a Better World), for example, lumbered with a boo-hiss villainess part when she deserves much better. With that said, the acting talent on show is incredibly strong and acquits itself well in the face of such shortcomings. Fans of The Killing and Borgen will also no doubt welcome an appearance from Søren Malling.
Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise at all if distributor Metrodome were hoping to gain some crossover audience from the Scandinavian crime drama crowd. Just as Wallander, The Killing and The Bridge have provided a Nordic spin on nineties British television hits like Cracker and Prime Suspect, so too A Royal Affair offers up a kind of Danish equivalent to those Andrew Davies period pieces that proved so successful with viewers around the same time. As with Pride and Prejudice, say, it is unashamedly populist, decidedly middlebrow, impeccably acted, gorgeously designed and terrifically entertaining. Were it to be screened in instalments on BBC4 over consecutive Saturday nights then I don’t doubt for a moment that it would prove to be a ratings success. Perhaps its DVD and Blu-ray editions can do something similar.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and encoded with an MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer, A Royal Affair arrives onto UK Blu-ray courtesy of Metrodome. This is the first of their Blus that I’ve had chance to sample and it’s a mostly impressive one. The opulent production designs and period detail are done full justice with an impeccably clean presentation demonstration superb contrast levels and clarity. Blacks are impressively solid, colours shine when required to and there are no major issues to speak of excepting the burnt-in English subtitles. With that said, their presence doesn’t appear to compromise the visuals. As for the soundtrack here we find a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that poses no problems. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout as is the score by Cyrille Aufort and Gabriel Yared.
Extras, however, are a touch skimpy. Alongside the original theatrical trailer all we find are a trio of interviews with Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Arcel and Alicia Vikander totalling just over 35 minutes. Recorded at this year’s Berlin Film Festival (where A Royal Affair received its premiere and also picked up an award for its screenplay) these rarely rise above the EPK puff-piece style and also have a tendency to ask to the same questions. As such we get the plot explained by all three interviewees, which isn’t really necessary.