Blu-Ray Review: A Royal Affair

Published on May 1st, 2013 in: Blu-Ray, Current Faves, DVD/Blu-Ray Reviews, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews |

By Less Lee Moore

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The period romance implied in A Royal Affair‘s title is fulfilled in the film, but if you’re looking for Shakespeare In Love, you may be disappointed. Rather than another version of the “love conquers all” fairy tale, it presents a nuanced, complicated, and not always flattering portrayal of the titular threesome.

Fifteen-year-old Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Wikander) is beautiful, idealistic, and naïve. Her dreams of a happy marriage with King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) are quickly crushed when she learns that Christian is not merely immature, but also rather cruel and possibly mentally ill. Her adopted country is quite conservative and she isn’t allowed to keep any of her books from home in England. She performs her wifely duties and provides the king with an heir, but after Christian banishes her lady in waiting, Caroline becomes even more despondent and resigned to her fate.

At the same time, in order to return to the court’s good graces with their Enlightenment ideals intact, Counts Rantzau and Brandt convince German doctor Johann Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen) to become the King’s personal physician. Streunsee and Christian become good friends and soon, Caroline is also taking counsel with the good doctor. When she learns that he is also a fan of Messieurs Rousseau and Voltaire, she is delighted, as is he.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that two people with shared ideals will become romantically entangled, especially when one of them is so lonely and beautiful and the other seems somewhat unfulfilled. Yet, A Royal Affair doesn’t depict the affair in question with an overly heavy hand. The buildup to the eventual passionate embrace is so subtle that when it arrives, it comes as a pleasant shock. There is a masquerade ball where Caroline and Struensee dance and their mild flirtation seems more like polite conversation until the expressions on their faces start transforming, bit by bit, until they are both surprised and overwhelmed.

It is Caroline’s idea to use Struensee’s role as Christian’s confidant as a means to infiltrate the royal council with Enlightenment ideals such as the abolition of torture, censorship, and the slave trade, as well as other reforms. Christian is so fond of Struensee and relieved to have someone on his side for once that he doesn’t seem to fully understand what kinds of changes he is implementing.

It gets ugly when Caroline becomes pregnant with Struensee’s child. To hide the product of their affair, Struensee has to convince Christian to return to the same bedchamber he himself has been visiting for weeks and Caroline, who has actually grown fond of Christian in the meantime, has to pretend to enjoy it. The look of sadness on Caroline’s face when Christian wants to cuddle after sex because he wants to be near the baby is nearly unbearable to witness.

With all of this deception and manipulation going on—to say nothing of the more sinister machinations of Christian’s stepmother and Guldberg the priest—it’s inevitable that things will become worse before they become better.

A Royal Affair lavishes all the attention to detail you would expect from a quality historical film, with sumptuous costumes and production design as well as cinematography that is breathtaking in portraying both beauty and squalor. That this is a story based almost entirely on actual occurrences (with a few slight deviations) makes it that much more spectacular.

What’s most unexpected is how much the flaws of the main characters are on display. We shift back and forth from being repulsed by Christian to being sympathetic; we think Struensee is an opportunist, a benevolent forward-thinker, and a manipulative creep. Some of Caroline’s bad behavior can be forgiven in light of her age, but nothing she does is bad enough to deserve her eventual fate. And that goes double for Struensee.

It’s not every period film that manages to be accurate and thought provoking. A Royal Affair more than succeeds on both levels.

A Royal Affair was released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment on March 19. Bonus features on the Blu-Ray include the theatrical trailer, interviews with Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Wikander, and director Nicolaj Arcel from the 2012 Berlinale Film Festival; and a detailed royal family tree including King Christian and Queen Caroline.

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