Dir. Nikolaj Arcel
(2012, R, 137 minutes)

Based on the true story of Caroline Mathilde‘s unhappy marriage to Denmark’s King Christian VII, A Royal Affair explores her feelings of isolation, which are alleviated when she meets Christian’s royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, a commoner who secretly supports the Enlightenment and uses his position to promote his populist ideals. Brought together by their shared politics, Struensee and Caroline begin a treacherous affair.

Similar dilemmas occurred to the recent, unhappily married heroines of The Duchess, a true story set in England, and Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy‘s Russian novel. It’s enough to make a girl think twice about marrying in 18th and 19th century Europe. But if not for them who would Keira Knightley play in movies?

A Royal Affair also bears a resemblance to The Other Boleyn Girl, which made the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn into an extravagant melodrama. This film isn’t quite as soap operatic. It stars Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen as Caroline and Struensee, but the highlight of the film is Mikkel Boe Folsgaard as Christian VII.

The king is mercurial, perhaps mentally ill, as playful as a child but also fearsome; when a man so erratic wields monarchic power it’s wise to mind his moods. But Folsgaard brings out the humanity in him. We sense a man with little interest in ruling, who was scarcely finished being a child (he was crowned at age 16), and when Struensee finally gives him a sense of purpose, he expresses the full joy of a boy receiving the approval of a father.

I like the film, though it could use an extra jolt of creative energy. Perhaps I was spoiled by having recently seen Joe Wright‘s aforementioned Anna Karenina, which takes its oft told tale and fills it with bold visual and musical details. This film takes a more straightforward, reverent approach.

There’s also an element of political allegory, or perhaps it’s just that the world’s class conflicts have never really been resolved. The Enlightenment involved the promotion of the rights of the masses against a wealthy, insular ruling class, who resented the peasants for wanting stuff – like not dying of smallpox or being tortured to death by their lords. In this regard it’s wise of director Nikolaj Arcel to take a straightforward approach; he avoids making a heavy-handed statement about inequality and lets history speak for itself.