March 23, 2023

A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) Review Starring Mads Mikkelsen



For me, A Royal Affair was a film without empathy. From the perspective of the craft, it is fine: workmanlike, rather than dynamic, but put together with care and attention. I don’t like crapping all over that kind of effort, particularly since I didn’t even have a bad time watching it. I was at least moderately entertained. But despite that, throughout the movie I could feel this gulf between me and events onscreen. And when a movie does not connect, that movie has failed.

A Royal Affair is the story of the coming of the Enlightenment to Denmark. Taking place in the late 1700s, the events surround the arrival of two people at the Court of King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard): the English-born Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and German physician Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Denmark at this time was ruled by a backward conservative clique of nobles, fundamentally opposed to the new philosophy that was spreading through Europe at the time. Struensee on the other hand was very much a man of the Enlightenment, and determined to change things. However things get complicated in the growing seriousness of his relationship with the Queen.

The most interesting thing about A Royal Affair is the performances, which are all brilliant. Vikander has all the cold reserve of a thousand unfulfilled-wife acting roles, and proves very capable of dishing out the emotion when she has to. Mikkelsen is a more low-key performance, which makes him less fun, but no less skilled, and he delivers a blinder of a concluding sequence. Best of all though is Folsgaard, who goes all-out as the raving, barbarically childish King Christian. To be fair, any role which gives you the opportunity to enthusiastically call for naked courtiers is a good one to play. But Folsgaard brings more than mad energy to the King. His Christian has a real sadness to him: the loneliness of a child in a man’s body. Bright, enthusiastic, but kept on a tight leash by a nobility who thinks him mad, he comes to see the compassionate Struensee as being like an older brother, or even a father. Christian is a brilliant creation, wild, funny and tragic all at once, and Folsgaard shows serious chops in bringing him to life.

Unfortunately however Christian is not the main character. That honour belongs to Mathilde and Struensee, and that is a massive problem. Neither character has anything approaching Christian’s depth. Mathilde, who is essentially our narrator, is a completely passive figure. She has no real motivations or ambitions, her character only ever reacting to circumstance. Even her joining in Struensee’s reforming crusade seems less a conscious decision, and more just supporting her fuckbuddy. This isn’t to say I didn’t sympathise with her plight: Vikander’s portrayal of grief is too affecting to allow that. But it’s difficult to really connect to someone without an ounce of fight in them.

Meanwhile Struensee is the opposite extreme. He is almost all fight, a serious Enlightenment reformer through and through. But though his cause is a righteous one, you never actually feel his personal connection to it. So much of his character arc takes place amongst the luxury of court, that he seems divided from his populist cause. His philosophy appears more something he has rationally convinced himself of, rather than a personal conviction. It doesn’t help of course that Struensee as a character is short-sighted and arrogant, and is brought down as much by his own wilful carelessness as by anything else. These traits, when combined with his stony emotionlessness, ultimately made it very difficult to connect with him either.

To bring it all in, A Royal Affair really is a film of great acting and great production value, but lacking in drama. It could be that I, as an Englishman, am not the best audience for the film. A Danish audience might connect easier, given that this an important moment in their history. I don’t know if I’d expect Danes to go all gooey over The King’s Speech. But on the whole, I really would lay all blame on the characters. The passivity of one and the coldness of the other meant they never felt to me like real people. Ironic really considering that these were real people. Ironic, and very disappointing.

Adam Brodie

UK Rating:15
UK Release Date:15 June 2012
Directed By:Nikolaj Arcel
Cast:Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Alicia Vikander, William Jøhnk Nielsen