A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair
  • Country of production: Denmark / Sweden / Czech Republic / Germany
  • Year: 2012
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Nikolaj Arcel
  • Running time: 128 minutes

A Royal Affair is the extraordinary true story of a scandal that rocked 18th century Denmark and changed the political landscape of Europe. It follows a similar arc to The King’s Speech (2010) in charting an unlikely friendship between a King and his physician. What sets this royal epic apart is that this doctor was a radical who persuaded the King to pass political reforms and also became intimately involved with the Queen. This gripping tale of passion, politics, intrigue and tragedy is recounted with ‘elegance, intelligence and clarity’ (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter).

A Royal Affair won the awards for Best Screenplay and Best Actor (for newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard’s portrayal of the King) at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. The screenplay is the work of the director Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg (collaborators on the BAFTA-nominated screenplay for the original film adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in 2009), with a contribution from Lars von Trier.

The film follows English princess Caroline Mathilde (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, soon to be seen in Anna Karenina), George III’s younger sister, arriving in Denmark in 1766 for an arranged marriage with King Christian VII (Følsgaard). He is apparently mentally ill, a childlike man more interested in his dog and the local whorehouse than either his wife or the day-to-day business of running the country.

Rugged German doctor Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, previously seen as Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale in 2006) is the author of anonymous tracts advocating the ideas of the Enlightenment. When Johann is appointed as the King’s personal physician, he successfully calms him and proceeds to gain his trust and, with it, influence over the governing body.

Both outsiders at court, Caroline and Johann are drawn to each other and embark on an intense affair. This is made all the more dangerous by the powerful figures who have been sidelined in the new order and who now seek to undermine them.

A Royal Affair crowns a remarkable period for Danish drama, in which Danish TV series The Killing, Borgen and (Swedish co-production) The Bridge have also been widely acclaimed.



A Royal Affair


“We didn’t want to ‘show’ history… Rather, we wanted people to simply experience the story through the eyes of the characters, taking the 1760s for granted. Even though the period is obviously there in the set designs, the costumes, it was filmed and edited as we would have filmed and edited a film taking place in modern Copenhagen.”


A Royal Affair successfully transcends its historical trappings by virtue of its lucid script, with its exhilarating storyline and vividly drawn characters, who are shown experiencing the excitement of political power and intense personal relationships. The three leads are ‘compelling,’ said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. Vikander’s Caroline is ‘incandescent, and Mikkelsen’s sober demeanour [as Johann] lightens around her, his face visibly softening. The feelings of genuine tenderness toward [the King] Christian from Johann and even Caroline are beautifully sketched.’

Political Dogme

Produced by cinematic enfant terrible Lars von Trier’s Zentropa production company, on the face of it this sumptuous historical production has little in common with the simple Dogme 95 style he pioneered, which called for films to be shot in the “here and now”. Then again, for all its heritage film accoutrements, this is also a political conspiracy thriller exploring perennial themes.

‘The strength of the script is its focus on events not as historical chronicle but as the direct experience of these three complicated characters’ (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter). Their impressions are invoked in a variety of ways, such as hand-held camera-work when Caroline walks self-consciously to meet the King for the first time.

Treatment of its subjects

The director’s approach is ‘even-handed and subtle’, wrote Geoffrey Macnab in Sight & Sound. Johann ‘has the hallmarks of a conventional romantic hero. He is good looking, idealistic and sweeps the Queen off her feet. At the same time, Mikkelsen’s performance conveys his arrogance and self-righteousness. His affair with the Queen is rooted in furtiveness and evasion.’ David Rooney pointed out in The Hollywood Reporter how the doctor also ambiguously ‘uses Christian’s blind trust and love for him to further his own political agenda, albeit one for the greater good’.

Like Johann, Christian’s character is ‘richly conflicted’ (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter). ‘Følsgaard slyly keeps the audience guessing about the extent to which Christian is aware he’s being manipulated and accepts it as part of the pact of their friendship. There’s unexpected poignancy in his characterisation.’

Christian ‘prances around snickering’ (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter) and ‘is a pathetic, slightly grotesque figure, but the film-makers resist the temptation to caricature him too much. Følsgaard… manages to make the King seem a sympathetic and even heroic figure, struggling vainly to overcome his own erratic temperament’ (Geoffrey Macnab, Sight & Sound).

“Something rotten in the state of Denmark

Johann is hired on the strength of his quotations from Shakespeare in a bout of verbal jousting with Christian. He later persuades Christian to visit the Queen’s bedchamber by making him think of it as acting, and to deliver speeches Johann has written that dictate policy to the State Council.

Even though the characters are acutely conscious of their situation, their destinies seem nevertheless to be pre-determined, as if scripted by forces beyond their control. Writing in Sight & Sound, Geoffrey Macnab compared A Royal Affair to Benoît Jacquot’s recent Farewell, My Queen (2012), about the final days at the Court of Versailles in 1789, in its intimate and often debunking approach to courtly life. ‘The kings, queens and courtiers who seem to have so much power are presiding over a world both corrupt and very fragile. They’re trapped in their rituals. When they try to exercise their own free will and break free, they risk destroying themselves and those around them.’

The film is narrated as a letter written by Caroline and the drama of their battle against faith and suspicion continues right up to the postscript.


A Royal Affair


A Royal Affair

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