There is a scene early in “A Royal Affair” in which Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) first meets Dr. Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, “Casino Royale”), a man who later becomes the king’s physician, as well as his close, trusted friend. The king has angrily rejected all the other physicians he's interviewed up to this point, and there is good reason to believe Struensee will be no exception. The interviews are due to a belief the king’s handlers have that the king is mentally ill and needs care.
The two men hit it off, however, after the king quotes Shakespeare and the learned doctor is able to quote The Bard back to the monarch. This pleases Christian VII, which offers Struensee some insight into his mental illness. Is the king’s behavior and acting out the result of insanity, or is he an actor at heart, frustrated by the shackles of fate that force him to be a king?
It’s also fitting that the two cite Shakespeare, that well-known writer of tragedies — one in particular about a king of Denmark. Even if we don't know Danish history, “A Royal Affair” gives us clues up front that this story will not end well for the protagonists.
In addition to being a doctor and knowing Shakespeare, Struensee is a man of the Enlightenment. The year is 1766, and thoughts about one's individuality and freedom were scandalous. The papacy and the hierarchy controlled Europe, and they wanted to make sure things stayed that way. The fact that Struensee is so close to the king means that he can affect changes for the greater good of the people and put some of his Enlightenment ideals into real practice.
All of those efforts may would have gone smoothly if not for Struensee’s affair with Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander, “Anna Karenina”). In true Shakespearean tragedy form, their secret becomes known, and power plays ensue for a takeover of the throne.
“A Royal Affair” moves briskly at 137 minutes long, and director Nikolaj Arcel has a gift for shot composition and pacing that keep this from being a stuffy costume drama. The film brims with the real lives and passions of the people portrayed on screen.
It also helps that the film looks amazing. The set and costume design serve well to create the period. There were times when I found my eyes drifting away from the subtitles and just admiring the architecture, such as a wonderfully carved piece of marble in the background. Say what you will about European aristocracy, they knew a good-looking piece of stone when they saw it.
The three main actors all do a fine job, but a special credit needs to be given to Følsgaard for his portrayal of King Christian VII. On the surface, the king’s outbursts — and disinterest in his royal duties and the trappings of the monarchy — seem like the behavior of a madman. As we see more of him, though, we see the layers beneath all the so-called insanity. Følsgaard shows amazing skill and control in allowing the subtleties of each layer unfold until we can see the king for the sad, gullible, unfulfilled court puppet he is. Shakespeare himself could not have written a fate more tragic.