The amount of sumptuous historical epics about sordid love affairs between European aristocracy is such that another one turning up is more likely to elicit groans than excitement. It seems like no stone has been left unturned, no stories left to tell. With 'A Royal Affair', the latest film from Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, we might have something fresh and fascinating enough to give the costume drama a much needed breath of fresh air.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Young Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) finds herself in the Danish court, married to King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard), a young but troubled man, prone to erratic behaviour and violent mood swings. While the rest of Europe is caught in the Enlightenment, Denmark stifles under aristocratic rule and a king going mad quickly. Cut off from the rest of the world and with a husband she cannot love, Caroline retreats into herself, until a skilled and intelligent German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), is brought to court to tend to the king. Both the king and queen find themselves taken by this foreigner with radical ideas of equality and revolution, and a dangerous love affair develops between Caroline and Struensee that threatens to rip Denmark to pieces.
Cut from a similar cloth to 'Dangerous Liaisons' (1988) and 'Barry Lyndon' (1975), this is a film concerned as much with ideas as it is by royal decadence. While the affair between the queen and the doctor sits in the foreground of the drama, the image of a Denmark in social and political flux gains just as much attention, giving the affair a fascinating context. In many ways, what we see is an intricate love triangle between the king, queen and the doctor, based on common ideals and passions. Pitted against the stolid and outdated royal council, they make a formidable force for social upheaval, a force that crumbles with the illicit affair taking place in the queen's chamber. In a clever move, Arcel doesn't indulge in the bodice-ripping passions or the stunning production design, engaging the audience as much with their minds as with their senses. 'A Royal Affair' is a costume drama with an underlying current of cynicism, letting as much dirt and grime to appear within the cracks of this Danish aristocracy. The triangle is surrounded by selfish and sinister supporting characters, especially Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik), a career statesman pitted against Streunsee and his Enlightenment ideals, and Julian Marie (Trine Dyrholm), the Queen Dowager devoted to pushing her step-son off the throne.
'A Royal Affair' is a costume drama with an underlying current of cynicism, letting as much dirt and grime to appear within the cracks of this Danish aristocracy.
All three leads give stirring performances. Vikander steers clear of making Caroline a wilting, weak flower, but instead a driven, veracious woman attempting to define a life for herself within a marriage she cannot stand. Mikkelsen is his usual stern, brooding self as Streunsee, entering the film with a much-needed masculine energy. Most impressive, however, is Følsgaard as Christian, an already award-winning performance. He delicately and expertly treads the line between a maniac, a man-child and a lost young man. Christian is a dangerous character, and without him, the film might not be as arresting as it is.
There is a fascinating visual flair to the film, something more grounded in reality than a sugar-coated idealised image of the Danish court. Arcel approaches the film in a manner similar to Joe Wright's 'Pride and Prejudice' (2005), enjoying the immense beauty of this world, but unafraid to show it coming apart at the seams. The rhythm is deliberate and careful, taking its time but never failing to keep you interested. 'A Royal Affair' works best by not assuming its audience isn't intrigued in watching the wheels of history turn, and anyone interested in a vivid recreation of this important moment in Denmark's history will find much to relish in it. Rather than putting another nail in the coffin of the costume epic, it reminds you just how effective and arresting they can be.