Movie Review: A Royal Affair Threatens to Undo an Enlightened Revolution in Denmark

Some friends and I once had a discussion about what we’d consider the movie of the most average possible quality. It’d need to be one that you enjoy well enough as you watch it, but that you also would readily admit that you could have died a happy person never having seen.

Under those guidelines, we were still considering a large group. We needed to narrow the list to a single title. So, we imagined further, were you to take every movie ever made that fit that decent/not great/not bad definition and line them up from slightly-the-best to slightly-the-worst, which movie would sit at the absolute midpoint of that spectrum? At the time (the late 1990s), we settled on The Negotiator, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. I’m writing today to announce that I’ve found a new champion of mediocrity. It’s called A Royal Affair.

This solidly-built workhorse of a film tells of an unusual, and short-lived, revolution in the country of Denmark and of the love affair that jeopardized it. Imagine the love triangle of Camelot, only with the king an idiot man-child and the queen turned on by men who read the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and you’ve got the idea.

It’s based on the history of the court of 18th century King Christian VII. In 1766, Princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) comes to Denmark from Great Britain to marry the king. She’s excited by the prospect, but soon learns of the king’s (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) bouts of mental illness and his preference for sleeping with prostitutes instead of her. She resigns herself to a lonely existence after the birth of their son, Frederick.

Then, a few years later, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) comes into their lives. He’s a doctor recruited by a group of progressive-minded nobles who had been exiled by the king’s court. They help him become Christian’s personal physician in the hope that he’ll use his influence with the monarch to get them reinstated at the palace.

Struensee is a political radical, an advocate of the Enlightenment ideals espoused by men like Rousseau and Voltaire. He befriends and indulges Christian, eventually using his growing influence to crowd out the king’s other advisers and push through liberal reforms — banning corporal punishment of serfs by their landlords, providing smallpox vaccinations to the poor, to start — as de facto head of the government.

Meanwhile, the neglected Caroline also falls under Struensee’s spell, and the two enter into the affair of the movie’s title. From there, palace intrigue by members of the nobility who had suffered loss of power under the new regime threatens to undo it all.

The story unfolds very much as you’d expect it to, even if you know nothing of the history of the kingdom of Denmark. It’s a tribute to the fine performances and fluid direction by Nikolaj Arcel that the movie never becomes dull, despite its typical plot arc and unremarkable courtly costume-drama trappings.

I really felt something for the complicated situation that Struensee and Caroline find themselves having to navigate, both for themselves and for the future of the country. I didn’t feel a whole lot though. Just an average amount.