His name is Mads Mikkelsen, and like all great movie stars he has his own unique way of burning screen and leaving you breathless and wondering, how the hell does he do it? Enter the royal court of Danish king Christian VII and the beautifully appointed period piece A royal affair directed by Nikolaj Arcel, this year’s Oscar submission from Denmark for the Best Foreign Language film. Character played by Mikkelsen messes things up by a steamy affair with the young queen, but both he, the film, and very much the co-star, another great Dane in the making, young Mikkel Boe Følsgaard who plays the king, are a treat for our inner cinephile. The title of this review should be the great Danes, plural; let’s not forget that Carl Dreyer was Danish, and so are Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier; the writing machine behind Dogma, Anders Thomas Jensen; or another fantastic actor, The Celebration’s Ulrich Thomsen. Denmark has only 5.5 million people, but in filmmaking it’s a world power. Great Danes indeed.
A royal affair is an excellent film, worthy of its Danish roots. It is directed to perfection by Nikolaj Arcel, filmmaker with experience in high affairs of the state (King’s game, 2004), who has countless writing credits to his name including the Swedish original movie version of The girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). It is refreshing to see that a beautiful costume drama can be done by someone other than the BBC, and be superior to the usual period fare thanks to the central place it gives to ideas and ideals, not just affairs of the flesh.
One of the most difficult things to pull in a film in these cynical times is the feat of ideal. A Royal Affair achieves this repeatedly, beginning with the beautifully acted scenes of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard playing troubled, perhaps dim-witted king Christian learning to stand tall in his court. Egged on by his mentor, German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the feeble king stands up to his own council, both literally and politically, and we see in his act at once the bravery of the human heart, the feverish joy of someone who conquered his own fears, and a glimpse of a possibly liberal mind behind the mask of a royal fool. As the good doctor (Mikkelsen) falls victim to his own hubris he struggles mightily with a very contemporary dilemma of free speech when his own survival is at stake. When he finally gives orders to restore censorship he is very much like a man of our own time besieged by what passed for the tabloid press of the era. As the viciously written bulletins rain on the Danish capital in a remarkable back-to-the-future frenzy of political death by the media, the couloirs of power are abuzz with intrigue of titled apparatchiks hell-bent on restoring order and their plentiful entitlements at the expense of the poor. Sounds familiar?
The brief episode of the Danish court adopting the ideals of enlightenment is the soul of this movie which could have, but didn’t, skated the familiar territory of two romantics that eventually got caught. They, and those around them who believed in them, remained committed to an ideal of a better human condition above all, including above their own self interests. There is nothing romantic in Dr. Struensee’s pragmatic vaccination program for the Danish populace, or his budget spending aimed at cleaning the abundant and disease-rich trash of 18th century Copenhagen. These ideas, and efforts of the small cadre of people who shared his convictions to make the life of many worth living, are passionately adapted by director Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg drawing from historical sources as well as book by Bodil Steensen-Leth; superbly acted by Mikkelsen, Følsgaard and phenomenal Trine Dyrholm, another famed cast member of The Celebration (Julliane Marie, the queen’s nemesis) as well as Swedish import Alicia Vikander (the queen); and elegantly directed by Nikolaj Arcel.
Director Arcel had at his disposal the castles and 18th century architecture aplenty, and he knew how to put them to maximum effect. Working with production designer Niels Sejer and cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek, he created a lush, opulent sense of imperial excess and with a few significant details such as rats crawling all over the cobblestone streets brought mid-18th century European city to life in a much more realistic way than we usually see in the movies. He had a wonderful costume designer Manon Rasmussen helping him and I wouldn’t be surprised if an Oscar nod went that way too. Production values are tops. Let’s also note that the film was executive produced, among others, by Lars von Trier.
A Royal Affair is the great Dane of a movie.
© Vera Mijojlic, Los Angeles, December 2012