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A Royal Affair (Magnolia Pictures, R)

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royalaffair 75It’s a splendid demonstration of the old adage that political films are really not about the time they are set in, but the time in which they are made.

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If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably never heard the story of king Christian VII, his beautiful English wife (and cousin) Caroline Mathilde, and the German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who brought Enlightenment ideals to Denmark in the late 18th century. I hadn’t either, until I watched Nikolaj Arcel’s splendid historical epic, A Royal Affair, but my ignorance of the details of the historical story in no way impeded my enjoyment of the film. This is a big story, with great acting and production values to die for—think Amadeus meets The Madness of King George—and it’s Denmark’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film.

A Royal Affair tells two stories in parallel, one about Danish politics and another about the maturation of a woman placed in a situation where she had very little power to control her own fate. Christian (a very effective Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is really a supporting player in this story. He’s the king, and he’s clearly unhinged at least part of the time—but to return to point #1, he’s the king so he can pretty much do what he wants. Thanks to an arranged marriage, Caroline Mathilde (the radiant Alicia Vikander) becomes his wife at age 15, and quickly finds out that she’s on her own when it comes to dealing with her husband, who takes “inappropriate behavior” to new levels from the first time they meet. Fortunately, she knows what her primary obligation to the court is; she quickly produces an heir, and then sets about salvaging what she can of her life.

While Christian is on tour, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, aka Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) is called to attend to him. He forms a bond with the young king, who really does seem to be in need of a friend, and accompanies him back to Denmark. Struensee is an educated and forward-thinking man who believes in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and manages to introduce some practical changes into Danish life, like inoculation against smallpox and organized waste collection to fight the spread of disease. He finds a kindred spirit in Caroline Mathilde, with the expected romantic consequences suggested in the title.

In history books, progressive ideas are often presented as if they were such obvious forces for good that everyone embraced them immediately. That’s not the case in real life, of course, and Struensee is seen as a threat by the entrenched powers at court. They fight back with a ploy that should be familiar to modern Americans, advocating a return to “traditional values” and Denmark’s “old glory.” Key players in this struggle are Christian’s stepmother Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm) and the aristocrat Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik)—and, in another parallel to our current political situation, they don’t play fair or stick to the issues at hand.

Watching A Royal Affair immerses you in an unfamiliar time and place, but the characters and their motivations are as clear and understandable as if the story took place yesterday and right around the corner from wherever you live. It’s a splendid demonstration of the old adage that political films are really not about the time they are set in, but the time in which they are made. Independent of the intellectual content of this film, the cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek is so rich and the period recreation, including costume design by Manon Rasmussen and production design by Niel Sejer, so complete that it’s a pleasure just to sit back and settle into the world of the film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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