Set in Denmark during the latter half of the 18th century, A Royal Affair features Alicia Vikander as Queen Caroline Mathilde recounting her life in Denmark’s high court.
Married to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), Caroline quickly finds her husband deranged and violent, and resents her lack of power within the court, which shows resistance to the royal family.
After two years in a difficult and loveless marriage, she finds comfort and mutual attraction with Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a town doctor and revolutionary who has been appointed the king’s personal physician.
Caroline and Johann begin influencing and inspiring King Christian to take on a greater role in court and work to better the kingdom for the lower classes. The king’s council resists and the demands of power — and love — increase as Caroline and Johann find their relationship, ideals and lives in jeopardy.
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel, screenwriter for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, A Royal Affair beautifully captures the main characters’ emotions and conflicts.
While Caroline is the main focus of the story, enough development and care is put into the other main characters that the audience sympathizes with all three players in the scandal.
The viewer sees not only Caroline’s love for Johann and fear as her affair is threatened, but also Johann’s desire to see his reforms implemented despite interference from the king’s governing council. Christian’s frustrations with being manipulated by Johann and Caroline and with the council as they limit his ability to rule are portrayed masterfully. The characters are morally ambiguous and become victims of their impulses and desires as well as societal pressures. Eventually they must face the consequences of their actions.
Ultimately, the film is more about a clash of ideals than a love affair. Numerous political conflicts crop up between Johann’s revolutionary plans, the nobility’s desire for control and the difficulties of learning not to abuse new-found power. It’s a shame more attention is not given to Caroline’s situation beyond the risks of her infidelity.
In terms of both production and cinematography, the film adequately depicts the mood and manages to get its political messages across to the audience. Sets and costumes are gorgeously designed, pulling the viewer into the time period. The film’s colour is subtle but well planned; much of the film has a faint tinge of grey that portrays a feeling of grimness or impending grief. Caroline’s letter to her children, used as the framing device of the film, aids in winning the sympathies of the audience. The heavy focus on close-ups can be tiring as well, but ultimately the mood and conflicts of the story are engrossing.
A Royal Affair is not a happy film, but is well-written and -presented, with much of the appeal coming from the cast and the actors’ interactions and conflicts. While not necessarily for everyone, the skilled acting and immersive design in A Royal Affair make up for any flaws in the story.