Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander. Written by Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. 14A. 134 min. Opens Feb. 1.
An Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film, A Royal Affair certainly fits the profile of a perennially popular variety of cinematic export—the handsomely mounted period drama that portrays political rivalries and romantic complications among wig-wearing royals and members of their tumultuous courts.
The setting in the case of Nikolaj Arcel’s Berlin festival prizewinner is 18th-century Denmark, presented here as a conservative country whose political and religious elite is fiercely resistant to the Enlightenment ideas then sweeping through Europe. Since the country’s ruler, King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), is an infantile fop with some serious emotional problems and little interest in the matters of the day, it’s up to Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the king’s personal physician and confidante, to introduce reforms. Alas, the dashing German doctor’s intimate relationship with the young queen (Alicia Vikander) imperils his allies’ hopes of charting a new course for Denmark.
Though A Royal Affair provides the degree of pomp and pageantry expected of any regally themed period drama, its best scenes also boast an unfussy vigour and directness. These qualities suggest that for all its old-timey trappings, Arcel’s film isn’t really so different from the more modern-minded Dogme movies that Denmark exported in the 1990s—indeed, Lars von Trier, Danish cinema’s most reliable provocateur, was an executive producer. The similarly energetic lead performances by Mikkelsen (soon to be seen as Hannibal Lecter in the TV spinoff currently shooting in Toronto), Følsgaard, and Vikander all help A Royal Affair shake off the air of stodginess that other moviegoers may associate with tales of kings, queens, and the schemers in their midst.