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Review: “A Royal Affair” a smart look at one country’s difficult road to the Enlightenment

Forbidden love sparks social change in “A Royal Affair.”
Forbidden love sparks social change in “A Royal Affair.”

If that famous French queen got in trouble for (apocryphally) telling the peasants to go eat cake, in “A Royal Affair” the Danish queen gets in Dutch when her lover tries to give her country’s peasants things like free speech, smallpox vaccinations and sanitary living conditions. The crown can’t win.

Like this year’s Marie Antoinette-centered “Farewell, My Queen,” “A Royal Affair” is a fascinating, behind-the-tapestries look at the bloody scheming in the halls of an 18th-century monarchy. In both cases, the royals — and especially the sycophantic noblemen sucking from their golden teat — are fighting a losing battle against the surge toward social progress known as the Enlightenment.

Like Marie Antoinette, plucked from Austria to be the French queen, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is an import to the throne. She’s brought from England to Denmark to be the 15-year-old bride of Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). The only impediment to the union? Christian is crazy — a childish mix of playfulness and spite.

The queen submits, as duty demands, at least until the first baby arrives. But things change when a handsome German doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, the blood-crying villain of “Casino Royale”) comes to court as Christian’s personal physician. Not only is he the only one able to keep the king’s moods in balance, he’s a secret reader of Voltaire and other progressives. And nothing makes a teen queen tremble like a man with a big, hard sense of social justice.

Director Nikolaj Arcel goes for a lush, borderline-clichéd approach to period drama. He indulges in the rich costumes and courtyards. (The only gritty scenes are those in the proles’ foggy ghettos.) If intense glances between the queen and the doctor don’t sufficiently convey their growing lust, why, let’s see them gallop thunderously on horseback through the countryside! (The queen straddles her horse, see, rather than rising sidesaddle.) Well, overused tropes are a fair exchange for the inherent, historical fascination of the story itself.

Though the movie pretends to be about the queen (she narrates from years after the central action), she is sidelined for much of it. The main story is Struensee’s manipulation of king and court for the good of society at large. And, of course, his nighttime trysts with the queen. Yes, he’s doomed.

While Mikkelsen seems a little reptilian to be a convincing heartthrob, he conveys Struensee’s passion, intelligence and that extra dollop of arrogance that spurs him to overreach. Vikander is a fetching presence. And, as the unstable king, Følsgaard pulls off something nearly impossible: he makes Christian seem insufferable but also weirdly endearing.

“A Royal Affair.” With Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. In Danish, German and French with subtitles. Rated R. 137 minutes. At Lefont Theatre Sandy Springs.

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