There is something innately human about the three main characters in “A Royal Affair.” Despite the inarguable fact that all three greatly influenced the future of Denmark, these characters are all presented as relatable and fully-dimensional people who – sometimes belatedly – try to do the right thing.
The film begins with a woman named Caroline (Alicia Vikander) composing a letter to her children about her lover Johann.
“I have to tell you about him. About us. Why we did the things we did,” she writes.
The story then flashes back to England in 1766 as Caroline is chosen to become the new Queen of Denmark. She is forced into marrying King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a young and immature leader whose love of acting is only eclipsed by his flair for making a scene. Over-dramatic and childish, the King quickly undercuts the new Queen on their first evening together when, while she plays piano in front of of a large audience, he loudly complains about her performance.
“Don’t steal my light,” he tells her afterwards warning her that he–above all–should be the main attraction in any room they share.
Soon enough, the Queen gives birth to a child while the King keeps to himself driving everyone around him crazy with his demands and outrageous mood swings. While travelling through Europe, members of the nobility are so distraught by his behavior that they enlist the aid of a Doctor Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) to care for their foolish leader. Struensee, a small town doctor who anonymously writes in support of the Enlightenment, is pushed into a position of power in a nation that is ruled by nobility and religious forces.
The film’s first half hour sets the stage for a story that focuses more on the relationship between the King and Johann more than anything else. Johann gives the king confidence to make leadership decisions while Johann is given the King’s ear in order to influence his decisions. Despite a court that rejects the ideals of the Enlightenment, Johann is able to push the King into making more liberal political choices.
In the midst of this story, though, Johann and the disengaged Queen begin an elicit affair under the eye of the naïve King.
Director Nikolaj Arcel has crafted a story here that seldom feels like a soap opera because the three main characters are all well-established. None is portrayed as a victim but all are able to earn our sympathies. The petulant King, for instance, clearly suffers from some psychological issues that can make him cruel and condescending at one minute and then frail and innocent the next.
The film is based on a true story and was written by Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg and adapted from the book “Prinsesse af blodet.” Although it seems to go on for a bit too long, it is a well-told story about three people who despite their own personality flaws, ultimately change the future of Denmark forever.