What's more powerful than the pen or the sword? A crazy king who wields both. This unruly combination propels A Royal Affair, a Danish historical drama about forbidden love, corrupt power, and The Enlightenment of 18th century Europe. At a time when your gentlemanly duels were quickly fading to a bygone age, this story exposes the death, havoc and heartbreak wreaked by backstabbing politics. So if you had any doubts that the stroke of a feather could do more damage than a thrust of steel, I hope this story taught you a valuable lesson.
The movie begins in England, where a member of the British Royal Family named Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander) is sent to Denmark to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). At first, it isn't clear what to make of His Majesty and his alternating giggly or aloof beaviour, or even how to interpret his debauchedness. The King's council, however, seek out medical advice, leading to the permanent employment of German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who keeps his personal radical, free-thinking, atheistic politics hidden. But as he gets closer to the King (and of course the Queen), he begins to exert incredible influence. This leads to royal reforms as well as the titular affairs, but as we're warned early in the film, they would not last long.
Fighting against trappings of the genre, director Nikolaj Arcel keeps a safe distance from flailing melodramatics (Keira Knightly, take note). Følsgaard's performance as the dependent and petulant king is wonderfully revealing, reminiscent of a more subdued Tom Hulce in Amadeus. There's an interesting control in his undiagnosed mental illness, and its portrayal is as complicated and interesting as it troubling to the man himself. We watch him losing power as he loses interest in the governing process, and understand the importance that friendship plays in performing his official duties. The final stakes are that much higher as a result.
The storytelling seamlessly shifts perspectives throughout, and never paints characters into a corner at the service of plot. The inevitable "royal affair" is the best example, as the resulting drama doesn't unravel through lazy coincidences or feverish outbursts. The film is much more calculating with it's jabs, and accomplishes a masterful final stroke.
In the end, I was touched. Or as you fencers might say - touche!