The Enlightenment came to Denmark in 1768 when King Christian VII took on a German physician by the name of Johan Struensee. Originally just hired to help the King with his mental issues, Struensee quickly won the favor of the King and convinced him to pass a series of reforms to end censorship and improve the lives of the grossly mistreated Danish peasantry. With the help of the King’s wife, who he was also having an affair with, Struensee challenged the conservative laws of the time and helped create a period of Enlightenment for the Danish people. However, as Queen Catherine Mathilde explains at the beginning of Nikolaj Arcel’s film about the events, it could not last: “We thought we could have it all… We were wrong.” If the actual history of what came to pass sounds juicy enough to make a good movie, that’s because it is, and Arcel’s film is just that: a good movie. Not great, not okay, but very solidly a good movie with a few great scenes here and there. It is hard to point to any one thing that holds the movie back from greatness – all the elements are there – yet as a whole it never quite achieves the power of other historical dramas.
But, even if the whole isn’t superb, there are certainly elements within that shine. The performances, for example, are great, particularly the scenes between Struensee, played by Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), and Queen Caroline Matilde (Alicia Vikander). In an early scene you watch as Struensee and the queen dance around each other – literally – at a masked ball, slowly growing closer together and, as they do, realizing their attraction to one another. The chemistry between the two is palpable, and poor old crazy King Christian, (Mikkel Følsgaard), has no idea, though perhaps he should have expected something (calling your wife “mother” is rarely a turn on).
The cinematography and editing also shine, as in the dance between Struensee and Caroline and a few other scenes; as Catherine and Struensee race through the countryside on horseback, director of photography Rasmus Videbæk paints the screen with the luscious dark greens of the hills and deep greys of the sky, shooting the world like a Jacob van Ruisdael painting; always with two thirds of the frame showing the sky. In a close up of Caroline in a grey dress, her legs gripping the caramel brown of the horse’s back, you feel her exhilaration of escaping the stuffy court society. As the rain begins to fall the two take shelter beneath a lone tree on a hill, just them and their horses. It’s a postcard of an image – simply breathtaking.
Yet, despite the greatness that’s there, A Royal Affair falls short and the finale isn’t quite as impactful as the director makes it out to be, perhaps because what’s been at stake for the course of the movie hasn’t totally been clear. As they’re having the affair, it’s obvious that it would be bad if they were caught – one does not simply sleep with the king’s wife – but how exactly isn’t certain. Would they be executed? Would they be excommunicated? Tortured? And what about all these reforms Struensee keeps passing? The audience understands intuitively that anything giving people more civil rights is a good thing, but because the filmmakers spend little time on exactly how the peasantry has previously lacked these it doesn’t feel quite so important when Struensee tries to stir things up. Eventually all these things become clear, but it’s too little too late.
That said this lack of stakes does not kill A Royal Affair. It’s one of the better movies to come out this year, and certainly a movie worth your while, particularly if you like historical dramas. Between three great performances by the stars and some beautiful imagery that’s been masterfully woven together there’s a lot to like just, sadly, not a lot to love.
This review was originally posted on MediumRare.