If you ever pondered how the European Enlightenment came to Denmark, or were in the mood for a tony bodice-ripper and inspirational history lesson, you might enjoy A Royal Affair, nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. The limitation is that this genuinely astonishing story of a German doctor who minded the mentally-ill Danish king, slept with the queen and created sweeping social reforms – a story about throwing conventions away – is a totally conventional movie.
The tale of the strange doings that took place at the Danish court in the second half of the 18th century is presented to us from the perspective of Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander). We first meet her in a voice-over letter, written in 1775, to her estranged children. We then flash back to nine years earlier, when the 15-year-old princess, sister of England’s George III, was shipped to Denmark to marry a cousin, King Christian VII (Mikkel Folsgaard), whom she had never met. From his hysterical giggling, bug-eyed stares and insults (“Move your fat little thighs …”), we soon understand there’s something off-kilter in the state of Denmark. The Queen’s newly appointed life partner is somewhere between a nitwit and barking mad.
The consequent chill between the royal couple suits the plans of the hostile dowager Queen Juliane (Trine Dyrholm) and the king’s Machiavellian tutor, Guldberg (David Dencik). By undermining the royal marriage, they have a chance of putting Queen Juliane’s son, Prince Frederick, on the throne so that the established aristocrats can keep raiding the public coffers and grinding down the peasants.
Some other nobles, who are sympathetic to the new Enlightenment values of reason, progress and liberty, are on the outs with the court, and are looking to get back in. They persuade a small-town doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), to petition for the job as physician and caretaker to the king. An intellectual with little respect for authority, he immediately makes a favourable impression on the monarch.
“I like drinking, hookers with big breasts and fighting,” the king informs him. “What’s wrong with that?” responds the liberal Struensee. Christian immediately becomes the doctor’s adoring lapdog.
Not surprisingly, Queen Caroline Mathilde initially dislikes the brash doctor who seems bent on encouraging her husband’s vices. On the other hand, the doctor has a hooded stare and cheekbones prominent enough to provide wind shelter. But what really pricks the queen’s interest is his library of non-approved literature, which leads to some non-approved sex.
After that, it’s just a few steps toward a bloodless court coup, in which Struensee and the queen conspire to manipulate King Christian to make wise and benevolent edicts. Torture is outlawed, smallpox inoculations are injected and a public sewage system constructed. Denmark is the model of a progressive state. Even Voltaire writes the king an effusive fan letter.
To pay for these reforms, Struensee urges the king to hit up the delinquent rich for back taxes and make military cuts, which goes over badly among the affected parties. Soon, the courtiers, military, tutor Guldberg and Queen Dowager are united against the doctor and the queen, inciting the public with a xenophobic hate campaign.
For all its incident, A Royal Affair is slow and picturesquely framed – more of a languorously animated coffee-table book than a gripping drama. Yet, it’s also a cause for wonder that the modern Danish liberal-welfare state owes its success to a love-starved queen, a mentally ill king and a doctor with a highly unorthodox sense of professional responsibility.