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Review: A Royal Affair (2012)

A Royal Affair (2012)

Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel

Premise: Set in Denmark during the reign of Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the king’s new personal physician (Mads Mikkelsen) becomes his chief advisor and under the physician’s liberal influence the country undergoes populist reforms. But all their progress is put at risk when the physician and the queen (Alicia Vikander) begin an affair.

What Works: Costume dramas are stereotypically viewed as stuffy and overlong affairs in which boring people speak in formal language while dressed in wigs, and corsets. That image is mostly founded in the many film adaptations of the books of Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters, which focused on women of privilege who obsess over getting married. But not all costume dramas are like this. Frequently the best movies of this sort juxtapose the veneer of delicacy and haughtiness with the rawness of sexuality, politics, and violence. A Royal Affair is such a movie and it is a picture that embraces the flawed humanity of its characters and dramatizes the intersection of the personal and the political. The design of the production supports this emphasis on humanity. The filmmakers rarely use wide shots or the kind of elegant staging typical of period pieces. Instead much of the movie is shot with drab lighting and medium shots that emphasize the relationships between characters as opposed to the relationship between people and the physical space. The costuming shows similar restraint. The characters wear formal attire and makeup but it isn’t so perfect as to look sterile. A Royal Affair is a story about imperfect people working in an imperfect institution in order to better their country and the political aspects of the movie are its most interesting point. This is a film about the ironies of political power. The physician, played by Mads Mikkelsen, has classical liberal ideals of personal freedom and limited, representational government, but his proposals are stymied by an obstinate governing council. It isn’t until that council is abolished in favor of autocratic rule that populist reforms can be implemented. But as their political opponents rally the anger of the mob, those reformers have to rely on the kind of oppressive measures that they once opposed. This kind of complexity and irony is rare in political narratives, whether they take place in the past or the present, and the filmmakers capitalize on that to make this film a sophisticated portrayal of people working at the epicenter of power. 

What Doesn’t: Viewers who come to A Royal Affair expecting a period romance like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre won’t find what they are looking for. This film is much more akin to pictures like Elizabeth or Agora in that it is primarily a political drama instead of a love story. As a political story it does fall into some of the traps that nearly every narrative of this kind does. Firstly, the opponents of the main characters are all scheming villains who don’t have any complexity. That is typical of antagonists in any story but it is more noticeable in A Royal Affair because the portrayal of the main cast allows for this this kind of nuance. Secondly, like many movies about royals, the goings-on of court are divorced from the realities of life on the street, except when crowds of angry villagers show up late in the movie. That leads to the third issue, which is that the story implicitly endorses oligarchy. To their credit, the filmmakers of A Royal Affair recognize the irony of social reformers taking dictatorial powers but nevertheless there is a strain of authoritarianism at the heart of the movie’s politics. 

DVD extras: Interviews, featurettes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: A Royal Affair is exactly what a costume drama of this kind should be: dramatically engaging while intellectually provocative. Although it isn’t the love story that its marketing might suggest, this is a smart story that will appeal to fans of television shows like The Tudors and The Borgias.  

Episode: #442 (June 9, 2013)