Something is revolting in the state of Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair is an intriguing insight into a royal romance and a bloodless revolution.
The Man Who Would Be King by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Before France’s revolution in 1789, Denmark had its own reform frenzy almost twenty years earlier, also based on the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It was almost entirely bloodless, if not for the execution of its main proponent Johann Friedrich Struensee. And short-lived – Struensee’s socialist ambitions were rejected by the aristocracy, his social contract floating free without the bloody firmament of the Terror. A German doctor in the Danish duchy of Schleswig Holstein, he treated King Christian VII during his visit to the province for a mental illness just shy of schizophrenia. And quickly befriending the young artistic soul ill-perched on Denmark’s throne, Struensee embarked upon an ambitious and meteoric climb which saw him catapult from travelling physician to de facto regent.
Based on two novels, Per Olov Enquist’s The Visit Of The Royal Physician and Bodil Steensen-Leth’s erotic Prinsesse Af Blodet, Nikolaj Arcel’s film has its own schizophrenia written into the heart of its being. A Royal Affair opens with Mad King George’s sister Caroline Mathilde departing from Britain’s royal court for a new life in Denmark and a marriage to her hitherto unseen cousin, the King. Censorship prevents her from taking her beloved French materialist philosophers with her, and upon her arrival the King is less than kind, rudely interrupting her harpsichord recital and ridiculing her fat, little thighs. Afraid that the new Queen might steal this Danish Sun King’s light, she’s kept hidden away from court. And trapped in her own private chambers with little to do other than bear the King heirs, she keeps the unwelcome Christian away with sneers and games of chess with her courtiers.
Cue the revolutionary German. Pushed into the limelight by the exiled Count Rantzow, Johann Friedrich Struensee, already infamous for his Voltaire-inspired free-thinking treatise Zum Nutzen Und Vergnügen, is made responsible for keeping the childish King entertained. At first disdainful of Christian’s boisterous acolyte, the bored Queen is seduced by his second row of hidden books, and soon finds herself in all manner of cahoots with the insubordinate and dashing doctor. Their royal affair is given historical weight with Caroline Mathilde represented as an equally modernising force, exerting her influence over the King for the good of Denmark. And try as it might to keep the Queen at the centre of history, as she espouses the free-thinking freedoms of literature and refuses to ride side-saddle, En Kongelig Affære keeps finding Caroline Mathilde relegated to its lonely child-rearing margins, reluctantly giving way to the very male force of history.
Attending meetings of the council with the King who, sidelined to a back seat, jokes his way through proceedings he barely understands, Struensee attempts to influence the King with suggestions for reforms. While these are quickly rejected by the incumbent councillors, Struensee’s star is on the ascendancy and when the king’s heir Frederik succumbs to a smallpox epidemic, the doctor cures the boy with an experimental and untested vaccination. Capitalising on the Queen’s influence, he exploits the King’s passion for succession and fatherhood and introduces a citywide inoculation programme to rid the city of its pestilence. Opening the King’s eyes to his power, Struensee harnesses Christian’s fondness for make-believe, teaching him lines to act out in court, and getting reforms passed that sees Copenhagen prosper, its streets freed from human waste.
Promoted by the King to Privy Councillor, Struensee dissolves the council and issues reform after reform. Serfdom is abolished, torture outlawed and the influence of the Church limited. Universities are founded, homes for orphans established and censorship abolished. It’s a grand revolution with Denmark pioneering human rights, but paid for through taxes on the ruling classes’ estates. The aristocracy riled and the royal family resentful of this cuckoo in the nest, Struensee’s days are numbered. Witness to the Queen’s passionate public glances towards the doctor, the Queen Dowager Julianne Marie, with ambitions to see her own son on Denmark’s throne, plots Struensee’s downfall. And as his affair with Caroline Mathilde becomes widely known, his own anti-censorship reforms backfire with a string of anti-Struensee pamphlets, culminating in insurgency at the palace gates. Too late censorship is reinstated, and fearful of being shouted out by his courtiers, Christian signs Struensee’s death warrant, condemning Denmark’s greatest reformer to the guillotine.
Like Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot, there’s a very Machiavellian feel to the Danish court. In part due to Trine Dyrholm, unrecognisable from In A Better World, who gives an excellent performance as Julianne Marie, Copenhagen’s very own inky Catherine de Medici. Mads Mikkelsen gives a great performance too, making the somewhat earnest reformer vaguely likeable, but it’s the luminous Alicia Vikander who really steals the show. Winner of Best Script in Berlin, En Kongelig Affære is a sexy 18th century King’s Game , crackling with pact politicking. But with little reference to contemporary politics or the darkest recesses of human ambition, A Royal Affair can feel a little like a Danish heritage film, conservatively mirroring ideas of its own history with neither scoop nor scandal. It’s a sumptuous feast of Danish progressiveness, but with barely a whiff of sans-culotte republicanism in sight, Nikolaj Arcel’s film is Denmark’s very own right royal affair.
A Royal Affair is released in the UK on 29th June 2012