Thursday, 14 June 2012


It's kind of amusing that virtually any look at a Danish film still begins with reference to Dogma, because the Danes have shown they can be adept in virtually any genre or style, in cinema or on television. Perhaps no one moreso than Nicolaj Arcel, best known outside Denmark for his screenplay adaptation of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (like many of his screenplays, written with Rasmus Heisterberg--they also did the Swedish TV series version) but also the director of a number of very different films, including the excellent political thriller The King's Game, and the fantastic fantasy Island of Lost Souls, possibly my favourite film at the London Film Festival a few years ago. It shouldn't come as a surprise that he should tackle the costume drama—what may come as some surprise is that, in A Royal Affair, he does it so well.

The film tells the story of Princess Caroline, brought from England as a wife for King Christian VII, and not only relegated, through her husband's childish personality and the court's disdain for her as his consort, to a position as royal non-entity, but also, because of the strict censorship imposed on the Danes by their church-led government, stopped from pursuing intellectual growth through the Enlightenment, spreading quickly through Europe. Enter Johann Streunsee, brought in as doctor to the King, and quickly becoming his confidant. Streunsee manipulates Christian into bringing the Enlightenment to Denmark, instituting countless reforms; but he also betrays his friend and patient by beginning an affair with the desperately lonely princess.

It's an intriguing mix of love story and political thriller, with very obvious echoes in the present, when reactionaries among the rich and the fundamentalists combine to try to hold back reform that might make life more free for all, and threaten their own privilege. It's helped by an extraordinarily deft bit of camerawork from Rasmus Videbaek, whose interior work in particular recalls Amadeus in its way it allows the characters the mysteries of candlelit darkness.

There's another echo of Amadeus here, in the performance of Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard as Christian, which reminded me of Jeffrey Jones' as Joseph II in that film. But Christian is a more complicated figure—an indulged child who's eccentricities have been encouraged by a court (in particular his father's widow, who wants the crown for her own son) who prefer to run the country using the King as a figurehead. The way the two stories, of personal betrayal and political change, come together, gets played out in Foelsgaard's performance, as he has to decide for himself whether or not to topple Streunsee, and imprison his own wife. You can follow his dilemma, the simple lack of fortitude, the good intentions but bad reactions, which brings the entire story into focus. At times, you can feel an intense sympathy for his lechery, and his weakness. When he signs away his own power, you feel for him, and the idea that you know this cannot have a good end cleverly undermines some of the headier moments of Enlightenment, reminding us that Streunsee himself succumbs to the lure of absolute power. Which of course he never really has.

That's e's balanced nicely by Mads Mikklesen's performance. Mikklesen brings out the character's hubris, as well as his innate nobility, he also catches on to the fact that, as with The King's Game, the film hinges on a well-intentioned protagonist not understanding how the political game is played. So too with Alicia Vikander, as Caroline. Hers is the responsibility for not letting the love story get too mawkish, not even when she is voicing the last letter to her children which frames it. Although the best comparison I could make might be with Isabelle Adjani, its a cooler, more Anglicised version. She's particularly good at bringing a English sense of female improvement to the story, as if this were a 19th century English novel...and Harriet Walter is excellent in a cameo early on as her mother, Queen Augusta, explaining the real-politick of royal marriage to her. There is an excellent ensemble cast, particularly David Dencik as the chief reactionary and villain, Guldberg, a pious hypocrite of a type we're exceedingly familiar with these days. But the supporting figures are particularly well-drawn, especially in the ways they react to the reforms Streunsee brings—they are nominally all in favour of the Enlightenment, but they find themselves wavering as it begins to effect their privileged lives.

I knew this story through Per-Olov Enquist's wonderful novel, The Visit Of The Royal Physician, in which the issues of the Enlightenment are foregrounded. Apparently, the filmmakers wanted to use his book, but its rights have been tied up in another project which has never got off the ground. So they nominally used a Danish novel, Princess Of The Blood, billed in some quarters as an 'erotic' novel, which, like the film, takes Caroline's point of view. Interestingly, they liased with Enquist, and hired lawyers to review their script to determine just what was history, and in the public domain, and what was Enquist's invention. Although they might have satisfied the intellectual property guys, the finished film still has a lot of the feel of the Enquist novel, which is no bad thing.

But given that this is a central moment in Danish history, the story might seem to tell itself. That is where Arcel and Heisterberg have been so effective –because if the Enlightenment were to set people free, as it were, to make mistakes. Their script is up to date, and it's also classic; echoes of Hamlet as well as Jane Austen perhaps. The English flatter themselves to think only they can do costume drama—this remarkably thoughtful and entertaining film proves them so wrong. Oh, and apparently Lars von Trier did look at the script, and help with some of the editing. So you can't get far from Dogma after all.

A Royal Affair opens tomorrow (15 June) in London.

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