History class is in session.
In the same week that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln begins its long march to the Oscar podium comes A Royal Affair, a powerfully understated Danish film that throws light on an obscure event in the country's past that has relevance in the present. Its cause didn't start on the field of battle or with the pen of some rebellious partisan, but in the bedroom of a particularly bored queen.
It's the mid-1700s and a young British princess, Caroline Mathilde (a vibrant Alicia Vikander), is excited to be marrying the king of Denmark, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). But she soon realizes her Prince Charming is a phlegmatic imbecile with little interest in governing and even less interest in her.
The only person he seems to open up to is his manly German physician, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen of Clash of the Titans and Casino Royale), who also notices that Caroline is unhappy. Faster than you can say "There's something rotten in Denmark," Johann and Caroline become secret lovers.
But he has more than sex and medicine on his mind. Johann is a vocal proponent of the Enlightenment, putting him at odds with the heavily religious men who make up the king's court. However, Johann is able to manipulate both the king and queen to further his political aims, getting them to allow personal freedoms to the populace, riling up the upper classes in the process.
They in turn become obsessed with finding some reason to get rid of this foreigner and interloper. An affair and a baby that might not be the king's? Yeah, that's the ticket.
All of this -- the seducing, the scheming and the lying worthy of the juiciest soap opera -- is brought to vivid life thanks to strong performances, the taut direction of Nikolaj Arcel (who also co-wrote with Rasmus Heisterberg, who penned the screenplay for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Rasmus Videbaek's cinematography, through which the icy, muddy gloom almost sticks to your skin.
Folsgaard is especially notable, finding vulnerability and humanity in a man who could have just been portrayed as a one-dimensional fool. It's no shock that this is Denmark's entry for the next Foreign-Language Film Oscar.
Much of A Royal Affair is supposed to have actually happened, which gives it emotional heft.
History may not always be fun, but, at least in this case, it's fascinating.
In Danish with English subtitles.
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