‘A Royal Affair’ is Camelot in Denmark?

In the 18th century, a king’s best friend was beheaded for having an affair with the queen and this true story is the subject for Denmark’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, “A Royal Affair” (En kongelig affære). The movie opens Nov. 16, 2012 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

The king in question is Christian VII of Denmark. He was, unlike Arthur of the Round Table legends, born in 1749, making him only a few years older than his queen, Caroline Mathilda of Wales who was born in 1751. At the tender age of 15, she was married to her cousin, becoming Caroline Mathilde. Their relationship was strained: Christian VII declared that it was unfashionable to love one’s wife and devoted his attentions to a mistress and brothels, particularly after a son, Frederick was born.  Caroline Mathilde was herself a bit scandalous for the time, after her first lady-in-waiting was exiled from court, she took walks in the city–Danish aristocratic women only traveled by carriage. More scandals would follow.

Her husband took a two-year tour of Europe, returning to Copenhagen with German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee had a calming effect on the king who became increasingly erratic. What might have been passed off earlier as immaturity or petulance and debauchery in the king’s behavior, became sure signs of mental illness. There were no policies or procedures in place for insanity in the king. If kings have the divine right to rule, what’s the protocol when you disagree with his decisions? But just what decisions was Christian VII capable of making?

King Christian was surrounded by strong personalities, most notably his stepmother, the Queen Dowager Juliane Marie, mother to Christian’s half-brother Frederick.

Writer/director Nikolaj Arcel is less interested in the lasting repercussions of this affair than the romance between a serious man of the people, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and the increasingly confident queen (Alicia Vikander). Vikander’s queen is the narrator, a girl who grows up and is attempting to explain her actions to her son. Vikander is 24–older than the queen lived to be as she died of scarlet fever at age 23, but at the time of filming she was about the right age.  Mikkel Boe Folsgaard who plays Christian is 28. His Christian is at first repellent–but we are seeing him through Caroline Mathilde’s eyes. Folsgaard manages to make him sympathetic and at first doubt that he might actually be insane.

Mikkelsen exudes intelligence and reserve as the ill-fated doctor. His Struensee seems genuinely fond of Folsgaard Christian, but driven by what he considered a greater good: democracy. What he can’t comprehend is that reaction of the populace. They don’t recognize him as one of them; they are not his supporters. Struensee was only 34 at the time of his death. Mikkelsen is 46. Struensee thus seems less like a young doctor than a man at middle age in crisis mode who could have well been the father of either Christian or Caroline Mathilde.  Less and older brother, Mikkelsen’s Struensee is a fatherly figure for both.

Yet the romance between queen and doctor isn’t so much lust amongst the high and mighty was an intellectual meeting of minds. An intelligent woman trapped in a marriage where she is powerless and ignored, even insulted by her husband the king, finds solace with the only man brave enough to offer her comfort. He is a doctor and he has revolutionary ideas about medical treatment and government. Why shouldn’t a woman imprisoned by social expectations question them and once you start questioning the rules that restrict you, why shouldn’t you question them all?

The movie convincingly  builds up the opposition that Struensee will face, but does not delve into the reason behind his move to take over the kingdom. Was he power hungry or just incredibly naive? Was he blinded by love or ambition? We don’t doubt his sincerity as an Enlightened man trying to bring democracy and free serfs from servitude. We aren’t sure, but perhaps neither was his beloved queen Caroline Mathilde as to his true motives.

The costumes are sumptuous and the movie reminds us that Denmark is a country that made history in ways beyond being the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” One wonders how many times this Camelot-like concept rose and fell before democracy could rise and flourish? Queen Caroline Mathilde appears to have been a woman willing to risk everything to live a full life and offers a model of resistance to society for the modern woman. In Danish and German with English subtitles.

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