The volatile mix of sex and politics is at the core of the sumptuously produced Danish film “A Royal Affair,” which, by underplaying its combustible material, fails to do full justice to it.
Based on a true story, the film begins in 1766, when British subject Caroline (Alicia Vikander, currently in “Anna Karenina”) marries King Christian of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), who turns out to be childish and mentally unstable. Trapped in a loveless marriage in a kingdom ruled by a reactionary Church and its political allies, Catherine soon turns for solace to Dr. Johann Struennsee (Mads Mikkelsen), a German man of the Enlightenment, the king’s personal physician and his best bud.
Catherine and Struensee become lovers, and the doctor, who has Christian’s complete confidence, gets him to dismiss the civilian government and appoint Struennsee de facto regent of the country. Struennsee then goes on to institute an incredible series of liberal reforms, including abolishing torture, censorship of the press, the slave trade and noble privileges. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well in certain quarters, and a propaganda campaign against ‘the German,’ which includes revealing his illicit affair (which has produced a female child), eventually leads to a coup d’etat that brings medieval reaction back to Denmark. Struennsee is executed, Catherine’s children taken from her, and she is exiled to a Danish colony in Germany.
This is fascinating material, and a tale little known to American audiences. It’s also told in a high-art style, with luminous cinematography, rich sets and luscious costumes. But at 137 minutes it is longer than it needs to be, and director Nikolaj Arcel paces it with a stateliness that tends to bleed a good deal of the passion out of the story. This is most evident in the performance of Mikkelsen, who played the villain Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale” and stars as Hannibal Lecter in an upcoming NBC-TV series. Usually a reliable and compelling onscreen presence, and one of the most interesting looking male actors around (he’s either gorgeous or stone ugly, depending on your taste), he is so stoic throughout so much of the film, you find it difficult to believe that his character is a revolutionary of sorts, a man not only bent on changing Danish society, but reckless enough to sleep with the king’s wife.
This is not to suggest that “A Royal Affair” is dull. It’s not. But by adopting a conservative, Masterpiece Theater-style, it forces stylish filmmaking to take a backseat to by-the-numbers storytelling. And that makes for a work that should be a lot more compelling than it is.