‘A Royal Affair’
Rated R for some sexual content and brief violent images.
The second impeccably produced period epic of adultery to arrive in Memphis in as many weeks (after "Anna Karenina"), "A Royal Affair" is Denmark's official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the upcoming Academy Awards.
If the movie wins the Oscar, its victory will represent a validation of décor and wardrobe over drama. Despite the presence of illicit sex, insanity, a smallpox epidemic and a climactic double beheading, the film is rather bloodless. The story is presented
with intelligence, and the visual evocation of late 18th-century Denmark is stunning, but the movie is more tasteful than rousing. This is somewhat surprising, considering that it's a production of Zentropa Entertainments, a company founded by the enfant terrible of Danish cinema, Lars von Trier (director of "Dogville" and "Melancholia").Inspired by history and a pair of popular Danish historical novels rather than by Tolstoyesque fiction, "A Royal Affair" recounts the saga of Caroline Mathilde (beautiful Alicia Vikander), an English princess wed as a teenager, for reasons of statecraft, to the king of Denmark, Christian VII (Mikkel Flsgaard).
The story is set during the Enlightenment, so the well-read Caroline is surprised to discover that Denmark, for all its wealth, remains mired in a sort of anti-intellectual Dark Age. ("The nobility rules by oppression, supported by strong religious forces," declares a text at the start of the film.) Worse, the king is something of a petulant simpleton, and possibly deranged — or so we're told.
As the movie progresses, Christian becomes increasingly sympathetic; in fact, he develops into the type of character filmmakers usually ask audiences to embrace: a fun-loving rebel, with an inappropriately loud laugh and a love for Shakespeare and "big-breasted whores." In any event, Catherine begins withholding her favors and sharing her disdain. Pouts the king: "I want a fun queen!"
Unfortunately for most of those involved, Christian gets his wish after he befriends a German physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee (stern-looking Mads Mikkelsen, whose handsome but unusual features suggest a Mort Drucker caricature). Johann describes himself as "an ordinary small-town doctor and the son of a priest," while his enemies prefer the terms "amoral libertine" and "vile German."
Christian installs Johann as his royal physician, and before long the rationalist, progressive and increasingly influential doctor is angering the Danish political and religious establishment and earning fan mail from Voltaire by prescribing cures for what ails the king's homeland; these remedies include inoculations for peasants, an end to censorship, a ban on torture and a halt to the ownership of serfs. He also teaches the queen to ride astride a horse, and you don't need to be blues singer Sheba "I Need a Cowboy to Ride My Pony" Potts-Wright to know where that will lead.
Soon, Caroline and Johann are exchanging more than Rousseau quotes; but as in the new movie of "Anna Karenina," the consummation transforms the two lovers into the least interesting characters in the film. The couple's sincerity isn't as interesting as the frustration of the cuckolded king or the scheming of the dowager empress (Trine Dyrholm, who deserves more screen time).
"A Royal Affair" — whose bright idea was it to saddle this purposeful film with a pun for a title? — is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.