“Gorgeous” isn’t a word that can be applied to many films, but A Royal Affair earns that distinction from its opening frame. An otherwise fairly standard 18th century drama, Nikolaj Arcel’s fact-based portrayal of British Caroline Mathilde’s loveless political marriage to Denmark’s King Christian VII is elevated by its strong performances and the aforementioned beautiful imagery. While these assets are consistent throughout, little new ground is broken, but for those keen on period pieces, this one delivers the goods.
Best known for scripting the Swedish (read: superior) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Arcel again focuses on a strong female protagonist struggling in a man’s world. Stuck in a miserable regal existence with the philandering, immature Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), so many depressing things happen to Catherine (Alicia Vikander) that when she finds romance with the King’s German physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the doomed relationship provides the film’s lone glimmer of hope. The freethinking doctor concurrently serves as a political catalyst, and as social reform comes to the once-stubborn Denmark, the film hits its two-pronged narrative stride.
With sharp features and strategically-placed age lines, Mikkelsen has one of the more interesting faces in cinema, yet one also seemingly prone to typecasting. Here, however, the man who shed Bond-villain tears of blood in Casino Royale and will soon take a spin as a young Dr. Lecter in NBC’s Hannibal is surprisingly convincing as A Royal Affair’s romantic lead. Winning favor with both the King and Queen, he showcases a range of emotions through minute movements of his fairly staid face. Set against Vikander’s soft loveliness, his appearance stands out all the more, and together their opposing looks offer consistent appeal.
Just as compelling is Følsgaard, clearly having a ball as the young King. A symbol of the downtrodden society over which he rules, his desire to enjoy himself and express his artistic interests within his constrictive confines are interpreted by his stodgy Council as insanity. Spurred into action by the pleasantly convincing Struensee, Christian gleefully gives the people what they want, enacting law after revolutionary law with Catherine by their side. The energy of their progress heralds perhaps the film’s lone period of pure happiness, though as a good drama must, the feeling is only temporary.
As multiple factors threaten to undo all of their political and personal gains, A Royal Affair provides consistently gorgeous shots of the lush Danish countryside, scenes of snow floating softly among passersby, and exquisite views of the palace’s ornate interior. Such high-caliber visuals blend well with the sticky web in which Catherine and Struensee find themselves entangled, but as with last year’s Farewell, My Queen, the film offers insufficient fresh elements to distinguish itself from its wigs-and-corsets brethren. Resembling a serviceable Jane Austen adaptation, Arcel’s work is solid but far from earth-shattering. Content with sketching within its restrictive period lines instead of venturing outside, the film methodically follows its genre’s tenets to a fault, leaving plenty to be desired.
Rated R for sexual content and some violent images.
A Royal Affair is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.