When you see two horses galloping towards a lush horizon, a woman’s thighs clamped to the saddle and a man looking sideways at her in appreciation, you can be pretty sure they’ll finish by clamping thighs on each other. Ditto, the period piece, slow-mo ballroom scene where the world fades out leaving the protagonists wrapped in each other’s gaze. Not the most original of conceits. Scenes such as these are a weakness of A Royal Affair.
But the strengths of this movie are such that we can forgive director Nicolaj Arcel for occasional lapses in originality. Given the confines of a period drama, he’s come up trumps on pretty much every other count.
Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen playing against type), a doctor living in the Danish colony of Altona in the 1760s, is taken to the court in Copenhagen to attend to the volatile temper and general instability of King Christian VII (brilliantly played by Mikkel Følsgaard), where he succeeds in becalming the monarch, and becoming his friend and advisor.
A man of science, Struensee’s advocacy of enlightenment ideals is viewed with suspicion in one of Europe’s last truly feudal states but finds the open ear – and then the rumpled bed – of Queen Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander, a shooting star at last year’s Berlinale). Together, they successfully implement a number of reforms, before the system bites back. It’s all in the history books. Well, more or less. Time is probably compressed a little here and there; cheekbones are lifted; royal breasts are briefly flashed. You get the picture.
Director Arcel admits that he had doubts, during the writing, on which story to run with: that of the Queen, or that of the doctor? It was Lars von Trier who encouraged him to go with both. Nice work, Lars, if I may say so. Concentrating on either one or the other would have limited the movie’s scope. As it is, we get the politics and the poetry of a relationship that is symptomatic of the changing times and fuelled by the passions that lay in the air.
A love triangle involving three women (Les Adieux à la Reine) opened the Berlinale out of Competition. A different kind of ménage a trois is one of its dernière offerings. As a critical success, my euros are on this one.