'A Royal Affair' lacks juice
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Director Nikolaj Arcel and writer Rasmus Heisterberg ("The King's Game," the Swedish "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," et al.) again join forces to mount a handsome period piece about hot times in the 18th-century court of Denmark. Such a revolutionary era, plus a scandal that rocked all of Europe, should have fueled "A Royal Affair" with high-octane dramatic juice: oversize personalities, royal adultery, intellectual ferment, dynastic intrigue. But "Affair" is disappointingly conventional, much too decorous and, at two hours-plus, sometimes just plain dull. Narrated in voice-over from some date in a tragic future, the story's robbed of immediacy and color.
Worse, the lack of any directorial point of view makes it an even more tepid "Affair." There are many ways to come at historical melodrama, from the hipster revisionism of Sofia Coppola ("Marie Antoinette") to the voluptuously stylized sado-masochism of Josef Von Sternberg ("The Scarlet Empress"). Arcel, Heisterberg and lenser Rasmus Videbaek bring little that's exciting or notably enlightening to the way they frame these volatile times and characters.
Fifteen-year-old Caroline Mathilde, sister of a future king of England (pretty Alicia Vikander, also appearing in "Anna Karenina"), arrives in Denmark in 1766 resolved to be a good and dutiful wife to young Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Unfortunately, hubby's an unstable, debauched boor given to giggling maniacally and insulting his talented teen wife publicly. After Caroline manages to birth an heir, she bars the royal spouse from her bed.
Truth is, poor Christian is everybody's stooge: His country's ruled by a council of self-interested, oppressive aristocrats who don't give a fig for the squalid world outside the court's bubble of privilege.
To give "A Royal Affair" some historical context -- for it's really the history, not the fiction, that's grabby -- consider that Caroline is married off to Denmark just a few years before Marie Antoinette, also 15, got hitched to the doomed Louis XVI. The radical ideas of the Enlightenment were sweeping Europe; books by Voltaire and Rousseau (confiscated from Caroline's baggage on her arrival in backward Denmark) fanned the flames that would lead to the French Revolution in 1789. Johan Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the German doctor who lucks into a job as Christian's personal physician and confidant (and later "king" of Denmark) counts himself among these freethinkers.
Despite the libertine tastes he shares with his royal boss, Struensee falls hard for the lonely, Rousseau-loving queen. During an elaborate ball, a dance morphs into foreplay: In a directorial stab at visual imaginativeness, the dancers' surroundings dim, their movements slow, and the soon-to-be lovers simmer in a bell jar of lust. Mikkelsen, who arguably possesses the most sensual mouth in Christendom (eat your heart out, Tom Hardy!), fairly pants with passion for the pouty princess. Well may he pant, since that scene's the first and last to signal any chemistry between him and Vikander.
"We thought we could have it all," the queen pens in the letter that frames the film, chronicling her love affair and the numerous reforms she, Struensee and the suddenly engaged king instituted during a scant 13 months. Oddly, it's Christian -- not Denmark's citizenry -- who primarily engages our sympathies during this heady period. The transient happiness of this sad, manipulated soul, offered the chance to be purposeful, praised even by the great Voltaire, comes across as poignant and nuanced thanks to Folsgaard's excellent performance. When an increasingly arrogant Struensee turns on him, demoting Christian to his former status of rubber stamp, the addled king's bewildered pain is genuinely touching.
The court conspires, an ungrateful populace mutters and churns -- and Denmark's age of Enlightenment soon goes dark. A plethora of plotlines pile up towards the end: executions, fatal illness, a coup d'etat by Caroline's forward-looking kids, seemingly mere moments after reading that inspiring letter from Mom, long dead and gone. Only one lacerating image stands out: Struensee on the scaffold, looking down into a sea of Goya-esque faces. Still dreaming of a Danish spring, the reformer cries out, "I am one of you!" The irony is that only the sight of his blood will animate that lumpen proletariat.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.