A Royal Affair dramatizes a chapter of 17th century history that is known to every schoolchild in Denmark—but was new to me. The fact that its compelling, and surprisingly contemporary, story is true makes it all the more interesting. Rising star Alicia Vikander (who also appears in this season’s Anna Karenina) plays a British-born royal who is betrothed to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) of Denmark, unaware that her new husband behaves like an overgrown child and is said to be mentally ill.
Enter the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen as Johann Friedrich Struensee, a small-town doctor from Germany who is recruited to become King Christian’s personal physician. Instead, he becomes the monarch’s confidante, companion, and conscience, instilling in him a political awareness that reflects Struensee’s commitment to a movement called The Enlightenment. The ambitious doctor also learns, to his surprise, that the Queen shares his progressive views, and this creates a rapport that, inevitably, ignites an affair. This quickly becomes fodder for gossip and intrigue at court and among the corrupt members of the King’s cabinet.
Director Nikolaj Arcel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stages the action in a brisk, modern mode that makes A Royal Affair easily digestible and satisfying. My only quibble is that it starts to feel long as we reach the final act. Even so, I’m glad I saw this international success, which is Denmark’s official entry for the Academy Awards. It already won two Silver Bears (for actor Følsgaard and writers Arcel and Rasmus Heiseterberg) at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. If you think costume pictures have to be stiff, or stuffy, this film should dispel any such notions.