Thursday, 05 July 2012

A real game of thrones

Barry Norman is spellbound by the true story of a very dangerous royal affair

Written by Barry Norman

A ROYAL AFFAIR

barry-normanBWSometimes truth really is stranger than fiction and A Royal Affair rather illustrates that. Of course, no film can be entirely true but this one, though adapted from a novel, is firmly based on fact and remarkable enough that, were it invented purely as fiction, it would be a bit hard to swallow.

In an arranged marriage in 1766, Princess Caroline, sister of George III, became the wife of Denmark's King Christian VII. Not much of a marriage. Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is mentally unbalanced, malleable but unpredictable, childlike in that he prefers the company of his dog to that of his wife, less childlike in that he also prefers the company of bigbreasted whores.

Nevertheless, Caroline (Alicia Vikander) dutifully produces an heir. Meanwhile, Christian is completely manipulated by the country's governing council, of which he is nominally head. This body, consisting of aristocrats and high- ranking clergymen, has but one aim: to protect its own considerable interests by keeping the rest of Denmark in the Dark Ages.

But things change when Christian, unaccompanied by his now lonely wife, goes on a tour of Europe and his advisers enlist a German doctor, Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), to stabilise his erratic behaviour. The two men unexpectedly bond and Struensee is taken back to Copenhagen as the royal physician.

Here, Struensee, a devotee of Rousseau and the Enlightenment and appalled by the oppression he sees around him, becomes Christian's confidant and advisor. The council is overthrown and the doctor dictates new liberal policies, introducing freedom of speech and the press, and abolishing serfdom. In this he is helped by Caroline, who shares his views and his bed and indeed has a daughter by him, though they manage to pass the child off as Christian's.

Oh, it's a perilous game they're playing and inevitably the enraged aristocrats and clergy, to say nothing of a vindictive Dowager Queen, strike back, so what develops is a rich stew of power politics, plot and counterplot, betrayal (marital and otherwise), revenge and counter-revenge, and tragedy.

Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the Swedish film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) handles this complex material admirably, never letting the fact that it's a costume drama get in the way. The clothes and the settings, sumptuous and otherwise, catch the eye but they remain simply a background to the characters and the action, which Arcel has filmed as if it were a modern story taking place now in Copenhagen.

The performances are excellent, especially by the principals. Følsgaard makes the king an ambivalent but curiously pathetic figure; Mikkelsen is very convincing both as a lover and as a man who, despite himself, is corrupted by the power he has unexpectedly acquired, and Vikander is impressive as the troubled queen.

The film works both as romantic drama and political thriller. It's in Danish with subtitles but surely that won't bother viewers who, like me, are already hooked on all those Scandinavian TV series on television.



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