Wednesday 21 March 2018

An affair to remember

Paul Whitington

a royal affair

(15A, limited release, 138 minutes)

Director: Nikolaj Arcel Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, David Dencik, Mikkel Folsgaard


As Sofia Coppola proved with her dreadful punk reimagining of the life of Marie Antoinette, it's very easy to make a mess of a period drama by trying too hard to make it seem relevant and un fusty. Opting too much for stateliness and period verisimilitude, on the other hand, can turn historical stories into impenetrable bores.

A Royal Affair gets the balance just right, and has chosen as its subject a fascinating and pivotal moment in European history.

Almost 20 years before the seismic upheaval of the French revolution, a maverick social reformer managed to briefly gain the ear of the Danish king and usher in a string of unprecedented reforms before succumbing to a reactionary backlash.

But Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) also conducted a clandestine affair with King Christian VII's beautiful English wife Caroline, and may have had a child with her.

It's a cracking yarn, and director Nikolaj Arcel and screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg, whose previous collaborations include The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, do a very fine job of telling it, and of balancing the sometimes conflicting needs of history and melodrama.

Charismatic young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is Caroline Mathilde, the daughter of the Prince of Wales who in 1766 is married by arrangement to King Christian VII and departs for a new life in the royal court of Copenhagen.

While she is accomplished and intelligent, her husband (Mikkel Folsgaard) is a volatile and mentally challenged boor, and after giving him a son she bars the bedroom door and tries to establish a separate life for herself.

She is helped in this endeavour by the arrival at court of Struensee, a dashing German doctor who caught the eye of the king on his travels and has been engaged as the royal physician. The attraction between Struensee and Caroline is instant, and amplified by their shared interests in music and culture. They began an affair, but Struensee is wooing not just Caroline but the king.

The doctor is a man of the Enlightenment, and through cajoling and encouragement, manages to persuade the malleable Christian to pass a series of unprecedented initiatives regarding free speech, public health and the abolition of torture and corporal punishment.

But power goes to the German's head, and his high-handed ways earn him powerful enemies.

Sumptuously shot and lit, A Royal Affair tells a sometimes complex story with admirable clarity and briskness, and Arcel exercises admirable restraint in refraining from too much technical trickery. Instead he trusts his story and his actors, and neither let him down.

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