An incredibly famous historical tale in it’s native land, the tragic love triangle between King Christian VII, his wife Caroline Mathilde and German physician Johann Friedrich Strunsee is little known outside of Denmark, but is given an international audience in this stunningly lavish, moving period drama.
Fresh from stealing scenes in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, Alicia Vikander (nominated for the ‘BAFTA Rising star’ award in 2012) glows as the young Caroline Mathilde, taken from her comfortable world on an English estate and sent to Denmark to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), completely unaware of the psychological traumas that plague him. From years after the main events of the film, she narrates her version of events, trying to explain to her children, without apology, why events took the course they did.
Back in 1770, it isn’t long before Caroline is left with her newborn heir to the Danish throne whilst her husband embarks on a tour of Europe, a tour threatened by his depleting mental health. Threatened, that is, until his aids employ renowned physicist Strunsee (Mads Mikkelson) to attend to him.
Whilst Strunsee’s involvement with Christian betters his health dramatically, his methods of encouraging indulgence, drink and brothel visits stand him in bad stead with the increasingly frustrated Caroline, and his Enlightened Political views do little to promote himself to the State Council who fear his growing power over the King. On Christian’s orders, Strunsee begins to spend more time with the Queen, who has slipped into a deep depression. It’s not long before they begin a passionate love affair and use Strunsee’s ever-growing power to promote their modern European ideals through Christian.
The dramatic relationship shift between the previously detached Caroline and Strunsee is expertly executed, the subtlety of the growing affection is beautifully underplayed by Vikander and Mikkelson, culminating is a sumptuous ball scene where their feelings become apparent. Their happiness is soon thrown into peril by a scheming, ambitious statesman (David Dencik: last seen in the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy) and the careful eye of Christian’s icy, calculated step-mother (an expertly cold Trine Dyrholm).
What could have been a simple forbidden love story grows far more complex through the political subplots and intrigue, ensuring an underlying tension that weaves itself through the narrative, consistently growing as the story barrels towards it’s tragic and overwhelmingly moving conclusion.
It is on the heads of the three leads that the story undoubtably rests: Mikkelson is on his usual outstanding form, Vikander brings a startling delicacy to her performance and newcomer Følsgaard is beautifully childlike in his portrayal of the tortured King, manipulated and controlled by all who surround him. The cinematography is stunning, recreating a misty, turbulent country in the latter half of the 18th century, the impending sense that a storm is brewing is captured perfectly in the epic scenery shots and extravagant set pieces.
A Royal Affair is easily one of the most beautiful films of 2012, and whilst overshadowed by Amour in the Foreign Film Award categories this year, I can only hope that now, on it’s International release, it will now begin to receive the praise and widespread attention it so thoroughly deserves.
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