Love fool – A Royal Affair review (Sydney Film Festival)

A Royal AffairStarring Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

A Royal Affair plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 9 and 15. It opens in Australian cinemas June 21, 2012.

Nikolaj Arcel‘s A Royal Affair doesn’t quite have the potency of a fleeting, passionate romance, so much as it mimics the drawn-out dissolution of a relationship. There are spurts of sordid sensuality and an intense, jaw-clenching climax, but for the most part, it goes on a bit too long and eventually you resent the film for all the reasons it made you swoon in the first place.

Alicia Vikander gives a fine, quietly tortured performance as British Princess Caroline Mathilde, who, at the age of 15, is charged with marrying King of Denmark, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Although Christian is just two years her senior, he has the spoilt demeanour of a child, or a small, insensitive puppy. He is cruel, christening her “mommy” on account of her unwillingness to act the fool, and his sexual appetite is as violent as it is voracious.

It’s been suggested that Christian VII was perhaps autistic or schizophrenic, but such diagnoses were not made in 18th century Denmark. Arcel’s picture – scripted dutifully by Rasmus Heisterberg (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from Bodil Steensen-Leth’s book) – suggests the royal court was rather concerned with rebuffing the advancements of the Age of Enlightenment then engulfing the rest of Europe. So, Christian’s affliction is explained away thusly: “Most of his problems stem from excessive masturbation.” Don’t they all?

Enlightened thinker Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is hired as personal physician to the mad king, and they develop something of a loving older brother-younger brother relationship, despite their seeming ideological differences. Johann takes advantage of his new position to influence Christian into introducing reforms and pulling Denmark out of the dark ages, and finds that he is actually all for making his peoples’ lives better; it’s the Church and upper classes keeping the 99% down (ahem). But their new kinship doesn’t stop Struensee from engaging in an illicit dalliance with Caroline, which escalates into a loving commitment, and results in the birth of Crown Prince Frederick VI. Rumours of their scandalous liaisons are on everyone’s lips, and it seems only Christian is left unaware.

Følsgaard makes a lasting impression in his complex role, but doesn’t mug despite the ease with which his character calls for it. Mikkelsen anchors the film, however, conveying the tragedy of being ostensibly the only intelligent man in a land of imbeciles, but not so smart he isn’t outdone by matters of the heart.

A Royal Affair is a refined, well, affair, but it’s mostly content to play into our preconceived ideas of what a period drama should be. Everything looks and sounds as it should, but technical proficiency and competent storytelling only gets you so far. Here’s a tale about a love that rocked the very foundations of a nation, claimed several lives, and is still being told centuries after the fact. It should leap off the screen, and the filmmaker charged with relating it should be unafraid to break the rules, skirt our expectations, and prioritise emotion over powdered wig selection. We shouldn’t be more thrilled by the relatively low-stakes sexual proclivities of fellow Scandinavian Lisbeth Salander, but we are.

2.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

A Royal Affair plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 9 and 15. It opens in Australian cinemas June 21, 2012.

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