Calling all period drama lovers! This film is based on the true story of an 18th-century love affair between Denmark’s young queen and her royal physician that changed the course of Denmark forever. The film stars one of my favourite actors, Mads Mikkelsen, alongside Alicia Vikander from Tomb Raider fame and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the mentally ill King Christian VII.
This film first arrived on my radar in 2013 when it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 Academy Awards. As mentioned, I’m also a big fan of Mads Mikkelsen. The film was almost unanimously well-received by critics but lost out to Michael Haneke’s groundbreaking Amour at the Oscars.
Setting the scene
IMDB gives the official film synopsis as; “In 1767, the British Princess Caroline is betrothed to the mad King Christian VII of Denmark, but her life with the erratic monarch in the oppressive country becomes an isolating misery. However, Christian soon gains a fast companion with the German Dr. Johann Struensee, a quietly idealistic man of the Enlightenment. As the only one who can influence the King, Struensee is able to begin sweeping enlightened reforms of Denmark through Christian even as Caroline falls for the doctor. However, their secret affair proves a tragic mistake that their conservative enemies use to their advantage in a conflict that threatens to claim more than just the lovers as their victims.”
Critics choice award
Before watching this film, I didn’t really know much about the Scandanavian country, Denmark’s, storied history. The movie is staged on the brink of the country’s Age of Enlightenment. What this movement essentially entailed was an increase in personal liberty between the middle-class, the relaxing of censorship laws, as well as a simultaneous increase in Danish nationalism. The movement was seen across most of Europe and was led by writers such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The film also portrays the start of the abolishment of serfdom.
Mads Mikkelsen’s Johann Friedrich Struensee implemented reforms based on these Enlightenment principles but they were short-lived as the royals feared a loss in power, while the commoners believed that religious freedom was an invitation to atheism. The film, however, focuses more on the love triangle between Struensee, King Christian VII and Queen Caroline against the backdrop of these reforms.
For most of his reign, King Christian was king in name only because of his mental incompetence which howstuffworks.com describes as either schizophrenia or porphyria. For the duration of the film, he mostly leaves the everyday royal duties to Doctor Struensee, and this eventually included his duties to his wife. The movie is told from Queen Caroline’s perspective and often speaks about her great love for the Doctor.
So, back to the Oscars. If you are unfamiliar with the process of how foreign language films come to be nominated, here’s a quick breakdown. Every country can submit one film and back in 2013, the Academy received a record-breaking 71 entries. They go through a screening process and, eventually, six films are presented to the screening committees, with the Academy executives having the ability to add three more. Members then come together to watch the nine films on a weekend and thereafter five nominees are chosen.
Going up against one of the greats, like Amour’s Haneke, is tough but as I mentioned the film was almost unanimously well-received by critics. While The Times compared it to silver screen greats such as Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright) and Les Miserables (dir. Tom Hooper), The Guardian called it ‘One to Remember’.
The film’s director, Nikolaj Arcel, is also known for writing the screenplay for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, as well as The Dark Tower which he also directed. In an interview with collider.com, he talks about Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who plays Christian VII; “He’d never done any films before. He’s never done anything. He was a drama student when we found him, so that’s quite extraordinary. He was obviously right for the part, so I took the chance and he took the chance.”
Except for an exceptional cast of actors, the movie is also praised for its historical accuracy. In the same interview, Arcel talked extensively about how they worked with prominent Danish historians to ensure that all facts were as historically accurate as possible. To really effectively transport the watchers to 18th century, Arcel chose a contemporary approach to shoot the film, which means that he does get quite intimate with the actors. When asked about this he replies; “I told my entire crew that I wanted them to feel like we were not looking back through time and trying to depict those times. We had to imagine ourselves being there and then shooting the film as if it was the most normal thing. We had to take the costumes, the wigs, the horses and everything for granted, because if we didn’t, we couldn’t focus on the characters.”
Viewer’s Choice Award
Way back in the early 2010s I became obsessed with foreign language films. To me back then, it was synonymous with art-house films. It was a bizarre period for American film, where I felt stagnation in the production of films that could have potentially shifted the boundaries a little bit.
I came across this film by chance and mostly because I had by that stage already fallen madly in love with Mads Mikkelsen. He is Danish by birth and around the time of A Royal Affair’s release, he also starred in the gripping film, The Hunt, which won him the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor. But he is, of course, best known for his role as Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal on NBC.
The decor and setting of this film is breathtaking. Devoid of the over-exuberant romanticisation of which Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is so often accused, this film leaves the feelings to the actors. You can feel their empowerment, disempowerment, lust and love.
While our January film was a feel-good one, this movie borders more on the tragic. My favourite part of the film is the fact that although history was shaped by this tragedy, the film was not. It retained its courtly love against the backdrop of European mysticism. What I am trying to say is that it is like Downton Abbey, but without the stiff-upper-lip.