GREAT FILMS: A Royal Affair (2012)

A Royal Affair (Denmark, 2012)
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Starring Mads Mikkelson, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Følsgaard, David Dencik 

Despite the critical acclaim accorded to Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, period dramas remain one of the easiest genres to send up, sneer at or actively despise. They have a reputation, like romantic comedies, for being air-headed and formulaic, being concerned only with big houses, grand gardens and fancy frocks, with no thought for what goes on between characters' ears. And that's not to mention the mixed legacy of Merchant Ivory, which launched many a career and made many a penny at the expense of blunting what remained of radical British cinema in the 1980s.
With all this in mind, you could be forgiven for going into A Royal Affair with very low expectations - or perhaps, for not going in at all. But on this occasion, that would have been a great pity, since it is one of the best films of 2012 thus far and a demonstration that, despite the stereotypes, all genres and stories have a degree of validity when they are done properly. In this case, director Nikolaj Arcel and executive producer Lars von Trier have demonstrated that there is more to the period drama than pretty costumes; there is plenty of room for political intrigue and philosophical discussion too.
One of the problems with making any kind of historical drama is the pacing. Because the characters in question did not have access to high-speed broadband, mobile phones or any of the technology we take for granted, there is a natural need to move the action at a slower pace for the sake of being realistic. On the other hand, the film still needs to flow fast enough to prevent things from becoming tedious, and in order for the film to demonstrate the validity of re-examining said period and the lessons, personal or political, contained therein.
Different directors emphasise one aspect over the other to serve the material they are working with. When Stanley Kubrick made Barry Lyndon, he very deliberately slowed the action down so that we had to accept the mechanics of the time period and force ourselves to become entrenched in this society. Such an approach wouldn't work with The Madness of King George, or indeed The King's Speech, since these rely more greatly on irreverence and a more candid demonstration of a nation's values.
What Arcel accomplishes with A Royal Affair is a period drama which is allowed to move slowly and patiently without ever making us feel like it is doing so for its own sake. His camerawork is very considered without feeling overly choreographed, and his cinematography is painterly without being overbearing. As a result of both of these, you never feel like the film is attempting to make you fall in love with the scenery, in the hope that empathy with the characters will come if you first learn to appreciate their lifestyle. The film is much closer to the works of Peter Greenaway, in which the beautiful landscapes serve as a grounding, from which we can discern clues and unravel the characters.
While A Royal Affair never feels like a weighty film, in terms of being burdened down by the storytelling, it does tackle a number of very interesting ideas and themes in an engaging and intelligent way. The film is set in 18th-century Denmark, a country in which the essentially mediaeval institutions of state and society are being threatened or challenged by the spread of the Enlightenment. Because the story precedes the French Revolution, Arcel attempts something arguably more audacious than films set in that period. Rather than showing the consequences of the Enlightenment ideas, he is interested in how these ideas infiltrate the corridors of power, influencing the powers-that-be and eventually supplanting them.
There are comparisons with The Madness of King George in terms of the character dynamic in which this idea is introduced. In both stories the royal is portrayed as old-fashioned, out of touch and quite literally insane, and in both cases a country doctor or commoner becomes the royal physician against His Majesty's wishes and inveigles his way into his inner circle. King Christian has some of the same foppish, beastly quality of Rupert Everett's Prince Regent, or even Hugh Laurie's version of the same character from Blackadder the Third.
But whereas Dr. Willis (Ian Holm) is a believer in old-fashioned religious discipline, Johann Streussee (Mads Mikkelson) is the very embodiment of reason, democracy and liberty. The film is refreshing in that it characterises Streussee as something other than a clichéd Machiavellian, matching his political rise to genuine, beneficial social change rather than just showing him consolidate power at the expense of the people. The ideas he espouses go from illicit copies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to daily discussions at the royal court.
The film is also effective in showing the blurring of personal and political ends. Arcel specifically set out to tell the story from the queen's perspective, contrasting her revulsion at her husband with the passion she feels for Struensee. We are left wondering whether the ideals prompted the romance or whether the romance prompted Struensee to push on with his reforms quicker. What is for certain is that the characters' emotional trauma is a genuine source of tension, even though we know from the beginning that the queen will survive.
Perhaps the most interesting idea in A Royal Affair is its contrast between the ideals of the Enlightenment and Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur, often considered the definitive version of the legends of King Arthur. There is a great irony at the centre of the film, namely that a man who embodies the Enlightenment in every way should fall by ancient, mediaeval, even primitive means. It is not the reactionaries which are the direct cause of Struensee's fall: it is his affair with the queen, and the resulting overconfidence that he will not be caught.
While the Arthur reference is introduced a little obviously, once realised it plays out beautifully, as the whole film is reshaped into an intriguing retelling of the legend. King Christian is Arthur, who has power but is emotionally impulsive and lacks independence. Queen Caroline is Guinevere, Arthur's beautiful wife who becomes instantly smitten by the King's must trusted knight. And Struensee is Lancelot, whose affair with the queen ultimately causes the collapse of the whole kingdom. In the later stages the levels of jealousy and pride coursing through the characters' veins rivals anything in Shakespeare's Othello.
It's a mixture of cliché and lazy journalism to describe Scandinavian drama as bleak, but A Royal Affair earns this moniker regardless of its country of origin. Its plot is as twisty and as treacherous as I, Claudius, and in different hands it would have made a very interesting TV miniseries. Even in its most sumptuous and beautifully shot scenes, like the garden party or the riding in the countryside, there is a feeling of dread or a great burden lurking in the background. While the film never quite matches Barry Lyndon in this regard, it comes flatteringly close.
The film is anchored by three outstanding performances. Alicia Vikander is thoroughly captivating as the Queen, blending strength, beauty and vulnerability as skilfully as Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons. Mikkel Følsgaard gives the foppish King Christian an unnerving mixture of playfulness and cruelty which holds our gaze. But both are ultimately overshadowed by Mads Mikkelson, best known for playing Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Mikkelson has the face of a weary, burdened man: he bears the scars of personal suffering and carries the woes and fears of his comrades on his shoulders. His execution scene is one of the most emotive in the film, in which his deep despair is matched by the silent crowd, who have sent one of their own to an awful death.
A Royal Affair is a really great film which demonstrates the power and weight of costume dramas when they are done correctly. Nikolaj Arcel utilises his three central performers to the full, surrounding them with beautiful compositions and feeding them plenty of material on which to chew. It never quite scales the heights achieved by Barry Lyndon or The Draughtman's Contract, in terms of visual poetry or historical insight, but that is a relatively petty criticism for what is definitely one of the very best films of the year.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: One of the year's best films


  1. I went to see this under reccomendation from Dr Kermode, and I have to agree it is one of the year's best taking second behind Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which I suggest you see).

  2. Thanks Myerla. Will see if I can track that down :)

  3. By the way, I gave you an award, if your interested.

  4. Thank you Myerla, I'm really flattered :)


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