Scandalous Review: A Royal Affair

Title:  A Royal Affair


Mads Mikkelsen as Johann Friedrich Struensee
Alicia Vikander as Caroline Mathilde
Mikkel Følsgaard as Christian VII
David Dencik as Ove Høegh-Guldberg
Søren Malling as Hartmann
Trine Dyrholm as Juliane Marie
William Jøhnk Nielsen as Frederik VI
Cyron Bjørn Melville as Enevold Brandt
Rosalinde Mynster as Natasha
Laura Bro as Louise von Plessen
Bent Mejding as J.H.E. Bernstorff
Thomas W. Gabrielsson as Schack Carl Rantzau
Søren Spanning as Münster
John Martinus as Ditlev Reventlow
Erika Guntherová as Hofdame
Harriet Walter as Augusta, Princess of Wales
Klaus Tange as Minister

Director & Screenwriter – Nicolaj Arcel
Distributed by:  Nordisk Film, Magnolia Pictures (US)

Based on Princesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth

What it’s about:  The story is set in the 18th century, at the court of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark, and focuses on the romance between the queen and the royal physician Struensee.

My thoughts:  I first discovered the love triangle of Caroline Matilda, Johann Struensee and Christian VIII in Eleanor Herman’s Sex with the Queen several years and was fascinated by the story. So much so that I blogged about it here. So I was very excited to discover that there was a new film coming out called A Royal Affair (this is not the first time Caroline Matilda’s story has been dramatized.  Apparently there is a 1935 British film called The Dictator about the love triangle.  Yet another film that I will be emailing TCM about!).

The film starts out with Caroline Matilda writing a letter to her children from her exile in Celle, detailing the story of her love affair with Struensee.  The film then flashes back to the 15 year old Caroline Matilda in Britain just before she’s about to embark on her journey to Denmark to meet her husband for the first time.  Her mother, Augusta, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales, gives her a little bit of marital advice.  Caroline Matilda embarks on her journey with great hopes for her marriage, which are quickly abused once she meets her groom, King Christian VII.  She first meets him hiding behind a tree displaying an odd giggle; he's mentally deranged and infantile. Being the dutiful princess she is, she does her duty in the marital bed with her reluctant husband.  I wish the filmmakers had included Christian’s public declaration that he couldn’t love Caroline Matilda because it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife,” instead of just having him tell Struensee in the film that she’s just boring.

She also discovers that some of the books that she brought with her from England were confiscated because they were banned in Denmark.  This is the first hint that the audience receives that Caroline Matilda might have ideas that are considered dangerous. While we are introduced to the principal players who become a thorn in Carolina Matilda’s side including Dowager Queen Juliana Marie, we never really get a chance to see how they tried to turn husband and wife against each other.  We also don’t see her chafing under the strictures of the puritanical Danish court or how Caroline Matilda managed to get around them.  One of the things that she did that was considered scandalous was that she used to take walks in Copenhagen, royal and noble Danish women normally only traveled by carriage. Caroline Matilda’s lady in waiting Louise von Plessen is exiled from court but we never learn why in the film.

Before too long the audience is introduced to Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German physician living in the Danish province of Altona.  Struensee is handsome, charismatic and burning with Enlightenment ideas.  He is the protégée of two exiles from the Danish court who put him forth as the ideal physician for the young King as he travels throughout Europe. Struensee agrees to the job and soon finds that the King is highly susceptible to his suggestions.  Caroline Matilda is not so taken with her husband’s new friend but Struensee soon finds the way to her heart by not just listening to her but taking her riding, and sharing his ideas with her.  There is a lovely scene where he slips her some anonymous pamphlets that he had written. Soon Caroline has fallen head over heels for the doctor and takes the scandalous step of inviting him into her bed.

This is where the film really takes off.  Princess Diana famously said “there were three of us in this marriage and it was a bit crowded.” In the case of Struensee, Caroline Matilda and Christian, he’s the glue that keeps the royal couple together.  He’s a father figure to Christian (whose own father died when he was 17), and a lover and accomplice of Caroline Matilda.  Although the couple are passionate lovers, they are equally as passionate about how they can change the kingdom. With Struensee’s help, Christian begins to act like a King, dissolving the council when they refuse to push through his reforms much to everyone’s dismay.  The puppet king, who sat in dull silence at council meetings, signing documents without reading them, is no more.

The film is lush, old-fashioned romance, and intellectual bodice ripper.  Mads Mikkelsen, known to American audiences as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, proves capable of doing more than just being a heavy in films.  Like the historical Struensee, he has unconventional good looks, and a towering masculine presence. Unlike the overly dressed and manicured courtiers, Mikkelsen’s Struensee favors dark, plain clothing and wears his hair unpowdered.  In Mikkelsen’s performance it’s easy to see who both Christian and Caroline Matilda could be seduced. His Mikkelsen is ambitious but he genuinely seems to care for the royal couple, they are not just a means to an end. Unlike the real Caroline Matilda, Alicia Vikander is gorgeous and she looks amazing in the costumes. She’s also a lot more knowing and sophisticated that I think the original Caroline Matilda was.  However, she glows whenever she’s on screen, and she and Mikkelsen have incredible chemistry in their scenes together. The film takes its time developing their relationship; Vikander ably portrays an unhappy woman ripe for seduction. The real find in the film is Mikkel Følsgaard who plays Christian VII. Truthfully his is the hardest role to play, Christian VII is not the brightest bulb on the tree, and he is willful and childlike, prone to tantrums with a cruel streak. The historical Christian was also psychologically abused by his tutor.  Folsgaard manages to convey someone who clearly has mental problems but who also needs someone to take a firm but gentle hand with him. One of the saddest scenes in the film is at the end, when he’s basically told by the head of the council to go play in a corner,  that he’s not needed.

The movie is a little bit too long and it sort of glosses over the fact that King ends up divorcing Caroline Matilda, and that Struensee confessed to his crimes because he thought she had confessed.  Also Caroline Matilda died in Celle two years after the events in the film not five. These are small quibbles because the film is just so sumptuous and wonderful, particularly after the disappointment that was Farewell, My Queen.  It also gets a little heavy handed at times with the mentions of Hamlet and the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur.

The Verdict:  Well worth seeing but it might be helpful to bone up a little on the background before seeing it.  There is no mention of the fact that Caroline Matilda and Christian are cousins or that her brother is King George III.


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