Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 20, 2012 8:47 am 
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Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard and Alicia Vikander in A Royal Affair

Royal madness, adultery, revolution

The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has a unique and memorable face, Sphinx-like and sculptural. All he has to do is not get in the way of it. His new movie, A Royal Affair, is Denmark's most lavish film production yet, but the camera spends a lot of time just dwelling on that face, which gives us something to focus on. How Mikkelsen's character the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee becomes royal physician and for a while takes over the Danish government is one of the great mysteries in a story full of enigmas. Struensee's rise to power is possible because the king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), is deranged. Or is he? It's never quite clear, and this uncertainty is what chiefly makes the film interesting -- and may distract us from the too many other questions that also remain unanswered. Young Følsgaard's buoyant, dashing performance as the unpredictable king is so arresting and original it got him the Best Supporting Actor award at the Berlinale, and he hadn't even finished acting school at the time. Obtrusive music and conventional bodice-ripper trappings get in the way of the more interesting stuff. But beyond the confusion there's always Følsgaard's performance and Mikkelsen's face.

This film isn't really just about "a royal affair" any more than Spielberg's new movie is just about "Lincoln." However it is bookended with an autobiographical letter written by Caroline Mathilde (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), as the Danes called her, a member of the British royal family who's sent to Denmark at the age of fifteen to be the queen. This point of view and even the coach arrival and meeting have reminded people of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. And due to Christian VII's immediate oddity -- he and Caroline Mathilde don't hit it off -- they also mention the Hytner-Bennett collaboration The Madness of King George. But then the focus shifts to the doctor, whose situation takes some explaining. He's living in Altona, which was in Germany but administered by Denmark, and a place where out-of-favor Danish aristocrats were sent. Struensee knows some of them, particularly Enevold Brandt (Cyron Melville) and Count Schack Carl Rantzau (Thomas W. Gabrielsson), who share the doctor's Enlightenment ideas and have read his anonymous pamphlets. They push him to apply for the job of King Christian's traveling physician, hoping he can get them back to the court.

Stuensee succeeds on both counts fairly rapidly, but an hour of the movie goes by before he and Caroline Mathilde manage their first passionate kiss. Meanwhile there's a somewhat more convincing bromance between him and Christian, who begins to seem more a free thinker and carouser (he likes drinking and whores with big breasts) than a madman. Or perhaps Struensee's liberalism just tames him. Initially the doctor is hired, in this version anyway, because he can quote Shakespeare as freely as Christian, and the King's great enthusiasm is acting.

Crazy or not, Christian does have a key voice in the royal council, and he comes to love and trust Struensee so much, it's easy for Struensee to make him "act" in introducing the laws he wants, though eventually he gets the King to sign over all his power ("you don't like writing"). Despite Caroline Mathilde's having had a son early on by Christian, they still don't get along, which may explain Christian's apparent unawareness of her wild affair with Struensee. A dip into the history indicates the adulterous couple's behavior was more overt and tasteless than the film, in its romantic gloss, allows. One of the film's grand scenes is a court dance with a patch of more intimate slo-mo that makes Struensee and the Queen de facto lovers in a sweeping and elegant way before the actual act.

There's an amusing scene where Caroline Mathilde worries Struensee by standing out in the rain because she says it reminds her of England. But this is one of many examples of how the film meanders too much. In this screen version the details of the affair are only ferreted out by quizzing servants after the Queen has a child by the doctor, a girl.

Another dip into history tells us that Struensee spoke German all the time in doing "business" at court, and if he did that, we'd understand better why his enemies, of whom there are soon many, as he robs aristocrats of perks and bankrupts the country with his liberal measures, always call him "the German" and the people come to hate him as a "foreigner." Mikkelsen never speaks a word of German even when he's in Altona at the beginning.

Nonetheless it's surprising how much of the history is included, parhaps too much, though it's held together by Følsgaard's brilliant turn, Mikkelsen's Sphinx-like yet raw stare, and the grand romantic sheen over everything, enhanced by Rasmus Videbaek's realistically limited lighting, alternating with glorious brilliance in outdoor summer scenes in the last bloom of the adulterous love affair. It's even historically true that another grand ball was under way when the doctor, Brandt, Rantzau and the Queen were arrested and taken away. Torture and beheading of Suensee are shown, but we're spared his behanding and other cruelties. The revelation is Suensee's 16-month reign, when he was privy counselor and passed hundreds of liberal laws, receiving a letter of praise from Voltaire. Then the film tells us after Suensee's removal the country reverted to "the middle ages." But, we're reassured to learn, Christian's son, Frederick VI -- played at 15 by William Jøhnk Nielsen, the disapproving son in Susanne Bier's In a Better World -- grew up to conduct a long liberal regime.

Of course there are many characters, whom I haven't mentioned, and everyone is good. As the young Queen Alicia Vikander is sexy and fresh-faced, and she's one of three European "Shooting Stars" in the film, but as a character she's a bit colorless, perhaps because she's forced to be so passive and there's not much chemistry with Mikkelsen. In real life Struensee was only 29 when he met the Queen, not 48 like the actor. Obviously it was more important to cast the international star Mikkelsen than for him to fit the role perfectly. And we got Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, who does fit his perfectly, and will be fun to see again.

A Royal Affair/En kongelig affære debuted at Berlin Feb. 2012, showed at Telluride, Toronto, and other festivals. It was released in mid-June and mid-August in France and the UK, respectively, and came out in the US Nov. 9.

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