The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have, during the long and varied history of their annual award ceremony, shown favour towards three things – period drama, films which focus on physically or mentally challenged characters, and a liberal sprinkling of controversial, often divisive, political intrigue.
Director Nikolaj Arcel’s acclaimed film A Royal Affair (2012), based on Bodil Steensen-Leth’s novel Prinsesse af blodet (‘Princess of the blood’), charts the life of the Englishwoman Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) who in the 18th century was forced to marry Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) the insane king of Denmark. Secretly she fell in love with her court physician Johan Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a man caught up in the new Age of Enlightenment – and together they started a revolution that changed a nation forever.
Centred as it is on true events (albeit coloured with more than a little artistic licence), A Royal Affair uses these to its best advantage, resulting in an arresting story of court intrigue and historical spectacle. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction and the plots and backstabbing which surrounded the 18th century Danish court and the life of its mentally ill King Christian VII, makes for more dramatic tension than any Hollywood scriptwriter could ever dream up.
The king’s infantile tendencies and restricted mental abilities, highlighted by his habit of referring to his wife as ‘mother’, are in stark contrast with a man who clearly had deeply set artistic inclinations which, under different circumstances would likely have seen him as a supporter of what the Enlightenment movement was striving to achieve. Indeed this sense of ‘what might have been’ for all the film’s central characters had their lives taken different paths, is a theme that runs at the heart of the film. The lives of Christian, Caroline and Struensee are all, in some way, destroyed by the expectations and restrictions placed on them by the society of the day, resulting in a story where there are no clear winners, with each individual paying the price in some way for their own personal form of rebellion.
The depiction of the politics of the era is marvellously realised. As is often the case with a film whose story centres around incidents of historical or political significance, it is frequently given more authenticity and realism if produced by the country where the events took place. The impact of Lincoln (2012), another contender for Oscar glory this year, would likely have been diluted had it been made outside of America. The same can be said for A Royal Affair, and its visualisation of court life and the importance it placed on etiquette and hierarchy is given a greater sense of realism having been co-produced by Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic, than it would likely have achieved if the film had been made by Hollywood’s monolithic machine.
The parallels between this film and The Duchess (2008), that other recent tale of failed 18th century aristocrats, are clear (right down to the uncannily similar poster art). From a marriage arranged purely for social advancement and political gain, to an uncaring and emotionally stunted husband and a young wife used as a pawn against her will, who finds true love which ultimately cannot be fulfilled, its clear that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Queen Caroline Mathilde had more than a little in common. That they were both interested in politics as well – Georgiana in her involvement with the Whig Party, and Caroline through the Enlightenment and her affair with Struensee – makes the stories of these two young women historically significant – though not just politically. The social implications are also highlighted in A Royal Affair with a wonderful subtlety. Occasions such as when Struensee encourages Caroline not to ride side saddle but to straddle her horse as a man would, may seem insignificant to modern viewers, but would have been a clear outward sign of ‘Enlightened’ anti-establishment tendencies at the time.
Outside these areas of plot and structure, what makes A Royal Affair such a sumptuous cinematic experience, and has brought it international praise since it’s release last year, is its authenticity in everything from costume design by Manon Rasmussen, to the Czech Republic locations and Rasmus Videbaek’s atmospheric cinematography. As for the cast Alicia Vikander (as the young aristocrat Caroline, taken from her home in England and cast adrift in an alien world with no support or friendship) is exquisite and stands out from her fellow players – no mean feat considering that they include such renowned thespians as the English actress Harriet Walter in the role of Caroline’s mother Agusta, Princess of Wales.
A Royal Affair was released on DVD in the UK in October, 2012, and nominated for Best Film in a Foreign Language at the 85th Academy Awards.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.