There’s no story or debate out there that can spark a scandal like the one over the separation of church and state, since it’s an issue that’s been simmering for hundreds of years and is still going on to this day. Thankfully it also makes for some damn fine cinema that just happens to be Academy Award nominated.
A Royal Affair is the true story of an ordinary man who unexpectedly rises to the halls of power, befriends a king, beds a queen and sparks a social revolution that would change a country forever. Centering on the intriguing love triangle between the ever more insane Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the royal physician who is a man of enlightenment, idealism and in possession of some rather forward thinking ideas on how to run a country; Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and the young but strong Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander). It’s a story of love, passion, idealism and sex all of which at that time in Denmark had no place in politics.
It’s a refreshing surprise when a story that’s so brazenly scandalous (at least for the time) is so sharp and intelligent at the same time. It’s fairly easy for a historical drama, especially when it is about a topic that not a great deal of people in North America will have any knowledge about, avoids any dry historical recreationist trappings and gets right down the heart of the story with some real characters that the audience can get behind.
Nikolaj Arcel, best known to audiences as the screenwriter behind the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, does a wonderful of mounting a gorgeous looking film that’s seemingly bathed in a warm light even at the darkest moments of political betrayal. The political setting of a time when the church and state were inexorably intertwined are never presented as dull, and its real comes from the film hitting us over the head with a message. We’re simply engrossed in a story playing out before our eyes. With three incredibly strong and well defined leads, this story not only engages us in a dark an relatively unknown chapter of a country’s history but into a complicatedly lush and vibrant love story.
With each role that he takes, there’s no doubt that Mads Mikkelsen has become a top flight leading man for the 21st century. His idealistic and practical Struensee gets wrapped up in the romance and intrigue that the halls of power have so easily seduced him with. He doesn’t know what hits him until it’s too late, and it only takes a glance at the camera for him to express a wide array of emotions. He’s simply stellar at playing it either warm and passionate, filled with anguish and desperation, or as cold as ice. When he’s on screen Mikkelsen can make us believe anything he wants, and is easily one of the best working actors today.
Rising star Alicia Vikander, matches Mikkelsen’s intensity nicely as her tragic and trapped queen strives not only to be truly loved but to find a way out of her misery of monarchy. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard only has a handful of projects under his belt, but as the impetuous King Christian VII, who may not be as crazy as his government council thinks he is, does a marvellous job. These characters are obsessed with each other and their own situations, and the relationship plays out so well that it’s a real credit to not only the writing and direction but to their chemistry.
The story of A Royal Affair is one that we’ve all seen before in terms of the thematic material, but it’s been awhile since it’s been played out so very well and it’s no surprise that it’s up for an Academy Award for best Foreign Film.