Denmark’s official entry for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars is a sumptuous period love story about an affair between a young queen (Alicia Vikander) and a revolutionary-minded physician (Mads Mikkelsen), set in the waning days of the 18th century. But the gorgeously rendered film — directed and co-adapted by Nikolaj Arcel, the screenwriter of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo film — is never merely an emotionally empty costume drama. It digs deep into the heart and soul of its lovers, who are idealistic, intelligent and passionate — and yet still risk everything they might gain for stolen moments together.
Vikander (Kitty in Joe Wright’s recent Anna Karenina) plays Caroline, a young Englishwoman married off to an unseen king of Denmark. Once she has seen him, her hopes for the future wither rapidly; the young king Christian (an absolutely wonderful Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) is something of a lunatic, given to weird giggling and strange outbursts. Caroline, though, knows her duty; she invites him to her bedchamber, only to endure one of the more unpleasant wedding nights in history. Soon pregnant with an heir, she doesn’t bother inviting the idiot king back, and he resumes chasing whores around the castle. And when he decides to embark on a long tour of Europe, she couldn’t be happier.
Or could she? An illness in Hamburg leads the king’s court to desire a personal physician for the ailing king, and a couple of freethinking conspirators put forth the name of Dr. Johann Struensee (Mikkelsen), the anonymous German author of radical writings and a great proponent of the Enlightenment going on in other parts of Europe that has somehow sidestepped dark little Denmark. They want Struensee to influence the easily manipulated king and get them back into the sovereign’s good graces.
Struensee accompanies the king back to Denmark and accomplishes that task with relative ease but at a personal cost: He finds himself drawn to the lonely, isolated queen, who shares many of his political views. At the king’s urging — “Make her fun! I want a fun wife.” — Struensee befriends her. Soon they are sharing books and galloping through the hills on horseback, plotting ways to manipulate Christian into ordering reforms. But the nobles of the court (including David Dencikof Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) are not going to ignore the threat to their positions and wealth.
A Royal Affair is a luxuriously romantic film; the encounters between the two are beautifully framed and shot with urgency. Vikander is so adept at reflecting the queen’s sensual awakening that you can’t help but wish she had looked old enough to tackle the role of Anna Karenina. But the precarious bond that grows between Struensee and Christian turns out to be surprisingly moving, too. The king is not quite as witless as everyone imagines, and despite his wild behavior Arcel makes you grieve for the troubled young man too limited to be a great leader. The film ends not on a happy note, naturally, but on a moment of hope. Love may not conquer all, but it has a power all its own.
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Trine Dyrholm, David Dencik.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel.
Screenwriters: Rasmus Heisterberg, Nikolaj Arcel. Based on the novel by Bodil Steensen.
Producers: Meta Louise Foldagger, Sisse Graum Jorgensen, Louise Vesth.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 137 minutes. Sexual content, some violent images. In Danish, French, German and English with English subtitles. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: Cosford, O Cinema Miami Shores, South Beach, Tower; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Delray, Lake Worth.