Nikolaj Arcel's saucy costume drama succeeds by prizing characterisation over historical detail.
Sex, death, power, intrigue, corruption, Rousseau and several blokes off The Killing: A Royal Affair has it all. It’s also based on a true story which, incredibly, has never been adapted for film before: that of Caroline Mathilde, the 15-year-old English princess who, in 1766, was packed off to wed the newly crowned Danish king.
She arrives alone, armed with a single nugget of motherly advice: "If you can get the King to visit your bedchamber on the first evening, you’ll be perceived as a great success."
Caroline (Alicia Vikander) doesn’t hang about. Within hours she’s charming the socks off the Danish court with her wit, beauty and enviable harpsichord skills. And sure enough, King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) does come knocking – though only after having publicly humiliated his new bride in a flash of childish spite, which does about as much to calm wedding night nerves as a bout of herpes.
The arrival on the scene of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a political radical who becomes Christian’s personal physician, speeds their doomed pairing towards disaster. The ensuing power struggles within their marriage and throughout the Danish court, poised between self-serving reactionaries and dawning Enlightenment ideals, are forged together in a dense latticework by director Nikolaj Arcel.
While Mikkelsen and Vikander are both excellent, Følsgaard stands out with a dynamic performance that has Christian emerge as a hostage to fortune rather than the petulant bully he initially appears. Whimsically indulged and emotionally unhinged, Christian takes to calling Caroline ‘mother’, interrupts theatre performances to quote dialogue he’s memorised, and in the same breath, moves from passionately advocating improved state waste disposal to decreeing his dalmation an honorary member of the council chamber. The fate of Struensee, doctor-turned-advisor to a capricious paranoiac, is similar to that of James McAvoy’s doomed character in The Last King of Scotland.
Arcel’s film succeeds by prizing characterisation over historical detail, establishing the central trio as red-blooded, complex individuals, each driven by their passions and given to irrationality at times. They are never reduced to mere pawns on a historical chessboard.
Scooped screenplay and acting prizes at Berlin earlier this year, so definitely worth a look-in.
Gripping, smart, well-acted – everything you want in a period drama.
A bit like The Duchess, but better. Denmark is so hot right now.