Perhaps it’s fitting that Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet, is referenced a number of times in A Royal Affair (2012), because much is rotten in the state of Denmark. The movie tells the story of good intentions gone awry through the conduit of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), an 18th-century German doctor who was hired by the immature and goofy King Christian VII of the Danes (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) to be his royal majesty’s physician. The good doctor brings with him a folder full of forward and radical ideas, ideas of The Enlightenment that would form the backbone of modern society, and he pushes the king to be more active in politics. At the same time, Struensee is bedding and impregnating his boss’s wife, Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander).
This is a saucy tale, made saucier by the fact that it’s true and that on the surface, it sounds like an over-the-top opera (there’s even a scheming mother, the queen dowager [Trine Dyrholm], who wants to manipulate the king to her ends and is resentful when Struensee does the same). But Nikolaj Arcel, who directs, treats the material with deadly reverence. This creates a staid response from the audience but changes the story from a bed-hopping romp in powdered wigs to an exploration of the nature of political change. As Struensee succeeds in wresting the king from the clutches of the conservative council that made him their puppet, he can hardly resist turning the king into a puppet for himself, and for all his high-minded Enlightenment ideas, the one thing Struensee learns for sure is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. George Orwell might have liked this movie.
When we first meet Johann Friedrich Struensee he is a simple town doctor in a time when a town doctor appeared more like a blacksmith than a health care provider. He’s requested to interview for the royal position with King Christian, whose odd behavior requires a doctor (his current handlers blame his eccentricities on “excessive masturbation”), and his highness and the doc hit it off after testing each other in a Shakespeare-quoting contest. When he’s brought to court, Struensee discovers that the royal council is cruelly taking advantage of their liege’s noninterest in politics (or in anything that isn’t stage drama or prostitutes) to keep the peasantry down by fattening their own wallets. Struensee also discovers the beautiful Queen Caroline, and outside of an immediate attraction, finds an intellectual ally (Caroline was sold into marriage from a more progressive England and has found the constrictive Danish worldview untenable, to say nothing of her husband’s childish cavorting). They fall in love, but the difference between them is that Struensee has affection for the king and pushes him to be more assertive with the council.
Soon, Struensee has engineered a scenario in which the universe lets him have his cake and eat it too, as he spends his days with the king, who has sent away the neophyte council and is legalizing equality, and his nights with the queen. Too soon still, however, his meteoric rise goes to his head, and Struensee brazenly tries to cut out the king from his political designs, treating him as a nuisance the way the old council did, and he becomes less and less discreet with his affair. The agents of the status quo, led by the king’s mother and a scion of the church played by David Dencik, use the not-so-secret tryst to turn the people and the king against Struensee, and eventually he and the queen are separated from each other as is his head from his body.
The movie that Arcel wants to make, which posits that Struensee is a national hero (there’s an epilogue where Caroline bemoans Denmark’s return to the Dark Ages when Struensee is ignobly removed), doesn’t stand up against the one he did make, which reveals that the new boss Struensee, well-intentioned as he may be, is the same as the old boss. That leaves the movie without a strong point of view (Arcel also tries to pointlessly shoehorn a present day parallel into the proceedings, focusing on political issues like health care, torture and equal-pay, proving, I guess, that we haven’t come very far in 250 years). It’s a conflicting point of view at any rate, as we find it hard to sympathize with a man who extols Enlightenment virtues while indulging in Baroque appetites.
The strongest point of A Royal Affair is the portrait of King Christian, who goes from being a buffoon to a terribly tragic figure, one who was truly interested in what’s best for his subjects even if he lacked the capacity to provide that by himself. Bolstered by a brilliant performance by Følsgaard, the king becomes the movie’s most compelling character. It reminded me of Tom Hulce in Amadeus (1984), surely the cinema’s last great tragic fool in a powdered wig, in the way that Følsgaard easily elicits both our derisive laughter and earnest sympathy. My favorite moment belongs completely to Følsgaard when, after Struensee’s coaching, he stands up to the council for the first time, proposing a costly but humane smallpox inoculation law for the peasantry. The king speaks with unsure temerity but eventual gets the words out, congratulating himself for a job well done with a small smile. Then he proposes that he’d like Gourmand, his great Dane, to be appointed to the council.
Mikkelsen and Vikander are both solid but their affair never gives us the impression that their attraction is so passionate that Struensee would undermine his political ambitions by pursuing it. Because of this, Struensee becomes a figure of hubris and it undercuts some of his more noble ideas. This wouldn’t be a problem if Arcel didn’t insist that his protagonist is a great figure, even if it’s more interesting to present him with these deficiencies. This lack of direction doesn’t doom A Royal Affair, which is sumptuously mounted and gorgeously presented, but they do keep it from being the best possible telling of this most interesting story.