CINEMA: News Weekly
Something rotten in the state of Denmark
, September 1, 2012
A Royal Affair (rated M), a Danish film with English subtitles, is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
A Royal Affair ought be a textbook masterpiece in how movies are made. The performances are excellent, the script of superb quality, the direction dynamic and dramatic, and the cinematography perfectly underscores the action. Despite this, however, it’s a tawdry, toxically revolutionary and libertine film that cleverly misrepresents the reality it depicts, and does so for despicable motives.
The film is based on the true story of Johann Friedrich Struensee, a talented doctor and “man of the Enlightenment” (played by the excellent Mads Mikkelsen), who becomes personal physician to the deeply disturbed Christian VII, King of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard). He then becomes lover of the young isolated English-born Queen, Caroline Mathilde (a powerful portrayal by Alicia Vikander). Ultimately, he emerges as the grand “reforming” despot, in the best tradition of the Enlightenment, until a coup leads to his execution and the queen’s banishment.
Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) in A Royal Affair.
The story has all the elements of tragedy on a grand scale. King Christian is a disturbed and perverse individual, lacking all kingly virtues and manipulated by a pietistic oligarchy bent upon maintaining their power and privilege — the same one that Søren Kierkegaard railed against two centuries later as the disfigurement of Christianity.
Queen Caroline is a beautiful, intelligent, educated, artistic young woman of great sensitivity, cruelly treated in a marriage arranged when she was 15, and despised by the vindictive power-hungry queen-mother, Juliane Marie (chillingly played by Trine Dyrholm).
Struensee is a talented man at the mercy of his passions, desiring to do good, but obsessed with putting into practice Rousseau’s and Voltaire’s insane ideas.
The film fails because it shares in the same myopic mania for the Enlightenment as does Struensee. This is propaganda of a most poisonous sort. Somehow the film-makers have been blessed with such extraordinary dramatic gifts that they still made a good film out of it, much more sophisticated than much else seen these days in cinemas; but for the thinking audience it is readily apparent that there are some things that just don’t quite ring true.
For instance, Streuensee deals with the king’s penchant for drinking and whoring by accompanying him. His motives are not readily apparent — does he want power by any means? Or does he really want to help the people? Does he really believe in democracy? After all, he grants himself absolute power over the business of the government with a signature from the King.
Blind declarations of Struensee’s “noble ideals” go nowhere in explaining how he is toppled by a popular uprising — one of the facts the film evades. While the coup may have been manipulated by the Old Order, it was the people themselves who rose up and toppled the doctor.
At one point, a friend of Struensee’s makes a reference, regarding the relationship between the doctor and the queen, to the “White Knight” Sir Lancelot’s illicit affair with King Arthur’s wife Guinevere. The Arthurian legend provides an apt contrast with the telling of this story, in that it is made clear that Camelot is destroyed through the betrayals of the queen and the White Knight.
Robert Bresson’s superb, and infuriating, Lancelot du Lac (1974), clearly presents civil breakdown as the inevitable end of the moral breakdown of the ruling class. A Royal Affair tries to pretend that the libertine immorality at court, rationalised by Struensee’s Enlightenment ideals, had nought to do with the problems of the state, and if they had not been caught, all would have been well.
It is a fantasy of disturbing proportions, this Enlightenment one, and it is in the most noxious form of fantasy that the other cause of the disease of this film might be found. The movie is not based, as many assume, on an historical novel, but on an erotic one by Bodil Steensen-Leth. The studio that produced it is Lars von Trier’s Danish film company Zentropa, famous for producing his mad, interesting films, and for making hardcore adult films mainstream.
This film is a fantasy for women about the wonders of the Enlightenment, which links sexual libertinism with the exposure of gross injustice. Its heroine is the young queen, making her both an innocent victim and idealistic reformer, overlooking any complicity or misjudgement she may have had.
It ignores the dissoluteness that turned the Enlightenment into an orgy of blood, thus showing its true colours — unlike the superb Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner, which shows Danton as a man of unrestrained passion and genius who is doomed by his own decadence and haunted by hubris.
A Royal Affair could have been a masterful exploration of a complex and fascinating piece of history. The film-makers obviously have the talent to do it. Instead it is highbrow romanticised erotica, parroting the poisonous propaganda of “progress”.
Thankfully, the artistic integrity of the cast and crew means that we still see the result of “progress” — a bloody reckoning at the hands of a baying mob and no check on the victory of the indolent and entitled.