A two-and-a-half-hour movie about the Danish Royal family. Sold yet? It’s testament to the strength of the Danish film industry that A Royal Affair is even getting a British release. It documents one of the most famous chapters in Danish history and, even by our own bonkers monarchal standards, it’s quite a tale.
English princess Caroline Mathilde sets off to Denmark to marry her cousin, who, rather than the fairytale prince she’d been hoping for, turns out to be a tittering ninny. Worse, he’s also slightly unhinged – possibly schizophrenic, earning him the rather unkind nickname “the Mad King” – and completely under the thumb of the socially regressive Danish court, who care only for self-preservation and looking after their pals. The peasants of Copenhagen aren’t eating much bread and they certainly aren’t getting any cake.
Most of the action takes place in and around the palace but even here the gilt furniture glowers moodily from shadowy corners – this is a time of political turmoil and there is no place for frivolities like clear lighting.
As far as the court is concerned, everything is going just fine until subversive Enlightenment-thinker-come-physician Johann Friedrich Struensee is parachuted into the court as the king’s quack. He’s charming and brooding and the king falls madly in love with him in what, given a different historical backdrop, could have been a heart-warming bromance. A power-struggle that helped to define the direction of Danish culture ensues, with an increasingly despotic Struensee intent on exerting his influence to free the subjugated peasantry and dismantle the powers of the landed gentry.
Alas, the friendship comes to an abrupt end when Struensee’s head falls into the axe-man’s basket. You see, while he is a man of principle, he also has an eye for the ladies and he can’t help having a crack at the queen, with a little too much success.
The dynamic between the suave Struensee – played by Mads Mikkelsen, who you might remember as scar-faced poker-player Le Chiffre in Casino Royal – and bumbling Christian can be captivating, with Struensee torn between helping the people and exploiting the vulnerable king.
Mikkelsen delivers the standout performance, with Struensee simmering under his cool façade, as the heavy burden of power takes its toll. The supporting cast play their roles well enough, but broad brush strokes render the majority of them either heroes or villains (you can play a game of Forbrydelsen bingo, with more than a few faces familiar from the hit Danish TV show).
The main problem, though, is that it’s just too long. Mad king Christian VII’s reign lasted a total of 42 years and by the end of A Royal Affair, I was starting to suspect they were recreating it in real-time; like watching a reality TV show in which the contestants are executed at the end. You start off caring about Struensee but by the end, I was wishing he’d just put his head on the chopping block and get it over with.
First published in City A.M.