Fans of Danish political history might know most of the true story behind A Royal Affair, while the other 99 percent of us will learn its scandalous tale for the first time.
This handsomely mounted costume drama combines elements of The King’s Speech and the self-help television show “Dr. Drew” with one of the most notorious episodes in Denmark’s past into a captivating package that should appeal to those both inside and outside its borders.
The story takes place in the 18th century, during the reign of King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), whose descent into insanity leads to the hiring of Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor who earns the trust of the king to the extent he becomes his personal physician and closest confidant.
Gradually, Struensee also gains political clout, speaking for the king on major policy decisions, which leads to a power struggle with the more conservative noblemen who control the government. His downfall comes when he begins a romance with Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander), who before long is carrying his child and forcing a cover-up.
A Royal Affair contains classic themes of deception, betrayal and lust, along with a healthy dose of political intrigue. Much of the passion brews beneath the surface in this society of muted emotions.
The film was directed with visual flair by Nikolaj Arcel, who also adapted the screenplay with co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg from a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth. The duo is best known for adapting the screenplay for the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
This is a much different project, of course, both in terms of setting and story, and the screenplay could use more narrative focus in its first half.
However, Mikkelsen (Valhalla Rising) again shows why he is a rising international star with a strong performance as a man whose outsider status allows him to bond with the queen, but whose progressive ideas cause friction within the political establishment and eventually lead to his erratic behavior.
Some of the ideas in the film still carry some weight today, such as debate about the separation of church and state. But mostly, A Royal Affair is content to allow its story fit the proper historical context, especially when the stakes include the future of an entire nation.
Rated R, 137 minutes.