Winner of both the Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at this year’s Berlinale (the latter for Mikkel Boe Følsgaard’s eccentric turn as King Christian VII), Nikolaj Arcel’s Danish costume romp A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære, 2012) functions well as an enjoyable diversion from its nation’s bleak crime serials. Featuring a commanding performance from the ever-impressive Mads Mikkelsen, there is much here to admire – and even more to decadently enjoy.
Revolving around the titular love affair between the King’s personal physician and confident Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen) and the English-born Queen Catherine of Denmark (Alicia Vikander) during the 1770s, Arcel’s pleasingly ripe melodrama focuses upon one of the most pivotal eras in not only Danish history, but also of European enlightenment. Together, Struensee and his kingly employer set about revolutionising the inner-workings of their beloved country – that is until exterior forces brought about the amorous doctor’s tragic downfall.
A Royal Affair is pushed well beyond its humble means by some excellent costume/set design and a trio of first-class performances courtesy of Mikkelsen, Følsgaard and Vikander. Mikkelsen in particular illustrates exactly why he has been able to forge such a successful career flitting between ‘serious’ European appearances and villainous Hollywood outings, evoking both admiration and sympathy as the pioneering Struensee. Følsgaard is also well worth his award win as the buffoonish, child-like Danish king, yet it is the beautiful Vikander who often threatens to steal the show as the linchpin between the two men who herself aspires to change the Danish state – despite constant subjection upon her gender.
Where A Royal Affair stumbles noticeably is with its pacing and dialogue. Whilst far from a failed attempt, the screenplay does at times slump into soap opera territory, with far too many throwaway clichés about love, honour and trust to really break the mould. Raoul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, this certainly isn’t, yet Arcel’s film should not perhaps be judged too harshly for its lack of arthouse ambition.
Those yearning for a lip-smacking, corset-popping yarn will be utterly spoilt by Arcel’s Danish dalliance, which to its credit has more going on under the bonnet than most mainstream thrillers. Whilst A Royal Affair doesn’t exactly reinvent the costume drama genre per se, it certainly gives it a welcome Scandinavian revamp courtesy of Mads and his fellow ‘enlightened’.