J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 05, 2012

A Royal Affair: Denmark’s Oscar Contender


King Christian VII of Denmark was reportedly Voltaire’s favorite monarch.  However, his revolutionary reforms were actually the brainchild of Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee.  His mysterious advisor also assumed Christian’s kingly duties with the Queen, leaving all three vulnerable to the nobility whose interests they threatened.  Based on historical fact, Nikolaj Arcel dramatizes Denmark’s most famous and influential case of adultery in A Royal Affair (trailer here), his country’s official best foreign language Academy Award submission, which opens this Friday in New York.

The mentally unsound King Christian VII was a terrible husband.  Sleeping with everyone but his wife, Queen Caroline Mathilda (the sister of the other mad king, England’s George III), Christian’s dissipated lifestyle took a toll on his health.  To the alarm of many, Dr. Struensee earned the King’s confidence by somewhat restoring his vitality.  A not so secret enlightenment pamphleteer, Struensee shrewdly parlays his influence with the king into de facto governing authority.  For years, the Enlightenment had been slow in reaching Denmark, but suddenly it had leapfrogged the rest of Europe.

Of course, not everyone is happy with Denmark’s nouveau intellectual cool.  The King’s mother and the rest of the nobility are distinctly unamused.  Unfortunately, they will have a major weakness to exploit when the Queen and Struensee embark on a reckless affair.  Initially, she is rather put off by the doctor, but his passion and forceful personality soon look quite attractive compared to the genetic mistake she married.

Poor Christian.  He is a rather sad figure, but Arcel is clearly most intrigued by the infamous Oldenburg’s role in history.  Indeed, he has his moments in Affair.  Nonetheless, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard’s ticky man-child performance makes it easy to understand how the Queen could take up with Struensee, despite the obvious risks.

Mads Mikkelsen duly brings the haughty intensity his fans will expect.  As Struensee, he is clearly cruising for a Shakespearean fall, and even seems to recognize it deep down.  The weak link of the love triangle is definitely Alicia Vikander, whose Queen Caroline is a bit vanilla, even by Scandinavian standards.

The historical facts of the Struensee Affair are rather incredible, but the on-screen drama feels rather safe in a prestige picture sort of way.  The Enlightenment vs. Old Europe angle helps distinguish it somewhat, but even those not well schooled in Danish history will have a good idea where it is headed.  Still, it is quite a richly crafted period piece, capturing all the pomp of the royal court and the grime and depredation endured by everyone else.  Beyond the best foreign language Oscar stakes, costume designer Manon Rasmussen and production designer Niels Sejer’s team deserve some consideration during awards season. 

Ultimately, A Royal Affair is a perfectly respectable historical, but a bit of a cold fish emotionally.  Recommended for those who enjoy costume dramas, it opens this Friday (11/9) in New York at the Paris Theatre uptown and the reopened Landmark Sunshine downtown.

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