One of the front runners in the current foreign film Oscar race is Nicolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair,” starring Danish star Mads Mikkelsen and newcomer Alicia Vikander in a true romantic royal triangle. The film won screenwriting and actor prizes (for rookie Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as King Christian VII) at Berlin and is in current stateside release from Magnolia. It’s a well-mounted accessible and sexy period romance as well as a serious piece of Enlightenment history largely unknown outside of Scandinavia–with a lush score from Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”). I interviewed Arcel and his screenwriting partner of ten years, Rasmus Heisterberg; they wrote the Danish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” (I also did flip cam interviews with Mikkelsen and Vikander.)
Anne Thompson: Is this as well-known a story in Denmark as say, King Henry the VIII and his wives or ‘A Man for All Seasons’? What took it so long to get made?
Nicolaj Arcel: It’s the first time it’s been done. They’ve been trying to make it for the last 30 years. But the financing was very difficult. This film was made for about $6 million dollars, even that’s a lot for a Danish film. We were so lucky to be the ones to do the story.
AT: How were you faithful to the both the legend and the truth?
Rasmus Heisterberg: Luckily it happened many years ago, so we took certain liberties. We were allowed to do that, but there are so many gifts in what’s true. You get so many details from the letters and the writing of that time to put into the film. The research was a gift.
NA: All of the events happened; and the politics is totally true, but we had to guess about what happened when you closed the doors in the chambers, there were no witnesses. All the other things were true.
AT: What surprised you that was not in the history books?
NA: We were fascinated by the character of Christian. There had been many different POVs about him from witnesses back then. I was fascinated that he was such a complex character. He was often portrayed as the crazy king, like Mad King George, but the more you delve into the history books and witness accounts, the more he seems to grow as a character. He was complex, charming, and at times he was completely mad. We tried to have that balance, sometimes he seemed quite normal.
AT: Did you expect the Berlin acting prize for him?
NA: I didn’t expect Mikkel –that’s his first part ever in a film– so neither he nor any of us expected him to win the best actor award in Berlin. He has a great anecdote: the jury foreman Mike Leigh told him after he won the award, ‘If you are really crazy, we want the award the back.’
AT: What was really wrong with the king?
RH: Many famous psychologists have tried to diagnose him. Some say he’s manic depressive, some say he’s schizophrenic. We don’t know. There were no tools back then to diagnose him. For us we it was interesting to have a character we were balancing between sanity and insanity. There was a dramatic force in that with Johann Friedrich Struensee helping him and curing him so he could become insane again when tragedy occurs.
AT: How did history judge Struensee, the radical doctor played by Mikkelsen?
RH: Struensee was vilified then and in recent times historians went into the material. Also Caroline was treated as a naive dumb English princess who was manipulated by this evil German. If you read her letters she was a fascinating young woman who read the Enlightenment and French philosophers. We were interested for once in portraying a much more modern character.
AT: How did you come to cast a Swedish actress in a Danish film, Alicia Vikander, who also stars in ‘Anna Karenina?’
NA: I cast every Danish actress we had from 18 on, and I couldn’t find one who had a regal quality. I was desperate, almost sad that we couldn’t do it. We went to Sweden, neighboring country, which is a different language but you can understand what each other is saying. I took a chance on her. She was so good, even though she didn’t know a word of Danish. She sounded horrible but her expression was great. She’s such an amazing professional, she went to Denmark and stayed there for two months and had Danish lessons for 24 hours a day to learn the language. It was the right choice.
AT: The challenge was to make something you knew would play in Denmark and also play everywhere else?
NA: It was purely by chance. We make films that people would really love to see. We never think consciously of what will play for an audience, or ‘will we get to the English people this time?’ It has played well for the Danish audience, who praised it, and it has played well with other audiences. But it was never a conscious thing.
AT: The film was a hit in Denmark?
NA: It’s a very big hit in Denmark–but that’s almost a given– even if it was a horrible film, which I hope it isn’t. But the good thing is it broke records for a Danish film in the UK and in Australia, and other countries as well.
AT: And Mads Mikkelsen is very athletic and does action roles and here’s he’s doing something very intimate. And he changes in the movie to become power mad.
NA: Mikkelsen is the best actor I’ve ever worked with. He has had a fantastic year with ‘The Hunt’ [which won best actor at Cannes], he played a very different character in this. We were very interested in the dynamics of the politics and how it corrupts you, even our hero. Even if you think Christian is a bad guy at the beginning of the film, he turns out to be the only pure character towards the end. Johann becomes corruoted with power and wants to become king. It took a long time to write this script. There’s nobody really evil in this but they do become corrupted.
AT: Was it hard to condense this complicated history into two hours?
NA: As we sit now, it’s too long! It’s still 20 minutes too long. I had a first cut of three and half hours. It was torture! We could torture people to death.
AT: How did you get inside the characters’ POV and not make it a stuffy Masterpiece Theatre drama?
RH: This film is so much about freedom, both the political story and love story are a long struggle for freedom, look at Syria and the Arab world now. To us it felt like such a contemporary drama to write. We always thought about that when we did the writing. The worst thing when doing costume drama is to make it too old fashioned, and too dusty. We were very aware of having to make it modern with the dialogue, but the drama itself is universal so that was a gift for us. AT: Are you going to do a musical next?
NA: This came out my love of films like ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the big epics from here. I also have a great love of Gene Kelly musicals. But the financing in Denmark: if you try to make ‘Singing in the Rain ‘ for $5 million it will look awful and small. Maybe we can do it here…
Audience Question: Struensee towards the end, you see the fear in how he played it.
RH: He was not a defiant hero in the end? We talked about that a lot. ‘These are my ideas.’ The truth of it was he was very scared no matter how heroic he’d been. It was more important to show the truth.
Audience: Where did you shoot the film?
NA: We shot in the Czech Republic, which has a slightly hillier landscape. We couldn’t shoot in Denmark, everything is so modernized.
Audience: Did Queen Caroline write those amazing letters to her children?
RH: She didn’t write them. Of all the things we did, it’s the biggest lie, at one point we thought as we ended it, it isn’t just the end, because a lot of good things came out of it. We thought, ‘how can we anchor this in a personal way?’ We’re sure she wrote a letter, maybe not this letter exactly. That’s not an historically correct thing. I hope she did. Let’s just say she did!