By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 17, 2012 at 7:12AM
Considering how very few people on earth we would rather watch on a movie screen than Mads Mikkelsen, colour us baffled to find ourselves slightly out of step with the rapturous reception accorded his latest film, the Danish-language period drama "A Royal Affair." Premiering tonight in Berlin, the film apparently drew cheers from press (though not in our auditorium), and has, in the few hours since, been hailed by some as the saviour of the competition. The film we saw, however, was a perfectly decent, lavishly mounted costume drama, probably above average for this sort of thing, but hardly earth-shattering and certainly not the best film we've seen so far.
Based on true events, "A Royal Affair" is set in the royal court of late-18th Century Copenhagen. And if it is elevated by the lead performances, more on them in a bit, it is marred by, among other gripes, the thinness of the characterisation of the supporting cast, who in some cases come across as irredeemable pantomime villains (the dowager Queen is an actual wicked stepmother). Of course the conscienceless, conniving powers-that-be, as represented by the dowager Queen, the Council and the ranks of noblemen and men of the cloth from which it is drawn, have to be thus recognisably nasty, anti-democratic and self interested, the better to throw together our two star cross'd lovers, who are pretty much the only decent people in the court, or at least the only ones who are also in their right minds. And so, the King's doctor and most trusted companion Johann Struensee (Mikkelsen) is drawn to Queen Caroline (an angel-faced Alicia Vikander) not just because they are both, in their way, smoking hot, but because they find in each other fellow progressive thinkers. Their first 'date' happens when Johann suggests Caroline might enjoy riding more if she straddled the horse instead of going sidesaddle.
The love story aspect of the film proceeds at a brisk clip. After a brief but necessary interlude where they both fight their natural inclinations, it all comes to a head in a passionate clinch after, what else, a heady dance at a court ball. It is undoubtedly correct that such social occasions were some of the only places that people got to, you know, hang, in those days, but we have to confess, it really felt like we'd seen that scene a million times before, right down to the ambient noise fading down, and, for a few moments, only the two of them existing in each other's orbit.
Meeting secretly in the Queen's bedchamber night after night, they plot together the instigation of such progressive policies as compulsory smallpox vaccination, the abolition of censorship, and the ending of the practice of state-sanctioned torture. Between them, they manipulate the feebleminded King into asserting his power for good. Their zeal is naive, of course, borne in the flush of new love, it is ultimately doomed one way or another. This we know because are told so in voiceover (did we mention the irritating and again rather hackneyed letter-writing framing device that lets us know from the outset this is not going to end well?).
Alicia Vikander does a fine job in portraying the young, idealistic queen and, positively worshipped by the camera and flattered by the frocks and hairstyles, she makes an appropriately tragic heroine. But it's when the film leaves the rather romance-novelish arena of the love story that it really piques our interest. The politics of Enlightenment-era Denmark make for surprisingly gripping context, and, set against this backdrop, Mikkelsen's Struensee rises to power, but develops a complex moral ambiguity along the way. Should you sacrifice your ideals to gain and retain the power to act on them? Can a belief in your own idealism blind you to the possibilty that you are pursuing power for its own sake? How can you be sure your motivation is principle, and not pride? These meaty moral quandaries are brilliantly evoked by a subtle, underplaying Mikkelsen and add layers to what has until then been a too-familiar story, too familiarly drawn.
As a foil, Mikkelsen gets an outstanding performance from newcomer Mikkel Boe Folsgaard as King Christian. Playing him in a manner akin to Tom Hulce's "Amadeus," but without the genius, Christian starts off as a monster of capriciousness and self-importance, only to become, through the course of the film, a rather sympathetic character, childish but not blackhearted, whose self obsession is a direct result of having been indulged and underestimated for so long. Well, that and whatever manic disorder he clearly suffers from. Like his Queen, Christian basically falls in love with Struensee, in an adoring younger brother sort of way; something in his better nature responds to the man's strength and intelligence, which makes us like him more too. Our rising sympathy for the King as Struensee's own ebbs sets up an interesting dynamic, and adds nuance to Struensee's transition from affectionate, understanding playmate, to impatient and powerful statesman.
But really, no one can wrestle the film away from Mikkelsen in terms of performance. Not wanting to spoil it, but a wordless realisation arrived at in a carriage by Struensee late in the film is so beautifully rendered, they should use the scene in acting classes. It also feels momentarily avant-garde, as though in resisting the urge to lather the moment in dialogue, just briefly, director Nikolaj Arcel is chafing against the bonds of the historical epic drama, rather than willingly submitting to them as he does elsewhere. These moments are rare but they do happen, for example, there's a scene where we jump cut progressively closer to Struensee's face as he sits in a chair. If it feels a little self-consciously avant garde amidst the classic, unobtrusive editing style used most of the time, then it also points the way to how, had the film had a little more faith in itself, in form it could have been as progressive as its protagonist.
But these brief experiments are sadly few, and really the biggest surprise the film springs on us is Lars von Trier's name in the credits (as one of the executive producers). Frankly, we'd love to have seen what von Trier himself might have done with this cast and this story, because whatever you think of him, it's certain he wouldn't have delivered what we get here: folks, it's handsome to look at, well-acted and occasionally threatens to bursts the banks of the genre, but for the majority of its long running time, it really is just a comfortably-rendered period drama. You'll have to forgive us for expecting something just a bit more challenging. [B]