‘Royal Affair' looks at Denmark history

by Varun Bhuchar | 2/5/13 11:00pm

When Americans learn about European history, we learn about countries like France, Spain and England. These countries were the colonizers and the birthplaces of the Enlightenment and have given us some of the world's best cultural artifacts.

Yet in the midst of learning about these great nations, it would seem inevitable that the smaller, yet no less significant, countries would be ignored. One of these is Denmark a nation that looks like Germany's fez if you were to look at it on a map.

However, thanks to Nikolaj Arcel's "A Royal Affair" (2012), a nominee for best foreign language film at this year's Academy Awards, audiences outside of Denmark get a riveting glimpse into a fascinating true story they likely know nothing about.

The film tells the story of Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a British princess who is wed to the childish, adulterous and mentally ill King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard) and lives a boring existence at the court in Copenhagen.

The lives of the couple change with the arrival of Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor who earns the king's trust after treating him for an illness.

Struensee, who considers himself a man of the Enlightenment, exploits the king's high opinion of him in order to better the condition of the Danish people by passing numerous reforms which grant the public civil liberties and freedoms.

In the midst of these public efforts, Mathilde and Struensee embark on a dangerous affair which threatens not only Denmark's progress, but their own lives as well.

Making a film based on historical events is always a tricky process. On one hand, there may be enough significant information that a film adaptation could attempt to recreate the event in question.

While this method can work, it rarely turns out an amazing product: the film feels like a history lesson come to life rather than an autonomous work of art.

Alternatively, one can take artistic liberties with history to create a coherent plot, even if this strategy may defeat the purpose of creating a film based on historical events. The trick is thus to find the delicate balance of both historicism and entertainment.

After I saw "A Royal Affair" for the first time, I was compelled to look up the figures and events behind the story.

To my surprise, I found that some historical bits, such as the film's implication that Struensee fathered Mathilde's daughter, are taken as historians to be only probable, not definite. This revelation, however, did not alter my perception of the film as a finely crafted masterpiece. Some purists may decry this type of storytelling as insulting to history.

But when history is combined with film, there must be some sort of art to it so that the spectator derives enjoyment from whatever he or she is watching. As such, we should forgive the narrative transgressions of "A Royal Affair" as its ends clearly justify the means.

Another reason the film works so well is due to the performances and interactions between its three main cast members. Vikander is beautiful and aloof enough to portray the queen as a tragic figure who was born into a life she was not at all prepared for. The role of the adultress is often a challenging one for women to play sympathetically, but Vikander manages to do all that and more.

Mikkelsen is fantastic as always. Perhaps the most well-known member of the cast, his performance as Struensee is nothing but masterful as he maneuvers, schemes and connives for the greater good.

His interactions with Vikander are astounding for their realistic progression of a relationship. The two oscillate from tenderness to unbridled passion with such finesse and ease that you forget that Vikander and Mikkelsen are not actually in love.

But perhaps the best performance comes from newcomer Folsgaard, who makes his feature film debut. Unlike previous portrayals of insanity, Folsgaard's performance as Christian VII is nuanced and succeeds in making us feel pity for the madman born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Christian is a man who is aware of his demons but is unable to fully control them. As such, he acts like a petulant and disrespectful child, but desperately wants to be the great king that everyone expects of him. These are the types of conflicts great acting derives from, and Folsgaard proves himself to be no exception to the rule.

"A Royal Affair" will play at the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center at 7 p.m on Friday.