While beautifully put together, the costume romance A Royal Affair hits all the familiar beats without going beyond its genre’s expectations. As the title states, this is about an affair, and from the start, the direction things will go is fairly easy to figure out.
Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is writing a letter explaining to her children how she has ended up in exile and what went wrong. She obviously gives away that things went badly (though when has a royal affair ever gone right in film?), and we then simply see how. A flashback shows the young noble woman Caroline married off to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) of Denmark, and, as expected, the marriage does not get off to a good start. Christian is insane. While not “dangerous,” he does get into fits, but he is easily controlled by his advisers. Also, beyond a love of attention, acting (he yells out the lines when actors are performing), and a desire for hookers, he has no real ambitions.
Caroline is repulsed by his behavior and, after giving the king a male heir, simply ignores him and becomes isolated and bitter. Then, when Christian is having a particular bad fit, two social-climbing nobles in exile have a local country doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), treat him. Johann gets along well with the king, being able to quote Shakespeare, and can respond to Christian’s fits so they are at least manageable.
Johann is able to get along well at court after this, even though he is a follower of the Enlightenment movement and wants to break away from many of the superstitions and customs that have held people back. During this time, Caroline becomes impressed with his ideas. Perhaps due to her loneliness, she finds comfort in a more thoughtful man. They of course start having an affair, and now that Christian is listening to Johann, they use this as an opportunity to push through Enlightenment concepts.
With any costume drama, the sense of place is very important. That is strong here; the setting of Copenhagen is shown as a dirty and grimy place, with mud all over the streets. The temptation to romanticize the period is never brought in. The costumes are realistic, as well, with beautiful gowns and suits that, while nice, never become ostentatious and distracting. It is in the ideas and characters that things become more flat.
The film speaks at the start about how the Enlightenment had not yet come to Denmark, and how the rest of Europe was thriving while Denmark was still trapped in the dark ages. The importance of this idea to director Nikolaj Arcel is very evident. Yet, the clear-cut theme of Johann Friedrich Struensee and Caroline Mathilde being good, and what they want for the country being good, and what everyone else wants being bad, feels very simplistic and gives the sense that many of the details of history are being ignored. This would be fine if the filmmakers just wanted to focus on Johann’s and Caroline’s relationship, yet that is in itself vague. The chemistry between them is fine, but there is nothing that can be pointed to that clearly shows a great passion. They are both of a high enough intellect to appeal to each other, but that is about it. In fact, Caroline is in many ways a blank slate; her isolation and bitterness may be historically accurate, but it does not make her interesting to watch.
The real interesting relationship is between Johann and Christian. Johann is not simply out for his own advancement. He believes his ideas will make Christian a great king in the eyes of Europe, and help the people. From what we are shown, this is true. Yet Christian is so dependent on the doctor that it becomes taxing, and Johann starts to yell and try to control Christian just as the old advisers did. Christian’s fears about Johann’s loyalty play out slightly differently than expected, showing a deeper connection between the two of them than either has with Caroline, who stays tame and obvious.
As with most romances, everything falls into place. With the advisers fighting to get back control, we go through the familiar beats of the doomed lovers. This is not inherently bad, but there is also nothing that springs to mind as being memorable about the situations they go through. This is a drama that knows what beats it needs to push, and though it does it in a natural way, in the end it is a story we have heard before.
Final Grade: B-