A Royal Affair

Dec 25, 2012

Denmark becomes enlightened but not without some dangerous liaisons.

A Royal Affair

Grade: B

Director: Nikolaj Arcel (Truth About Men)

Screenplay: Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Rasmus Heisterberg (Truth About Men) from Bodil Steensen-Leth novel, Prinsesse af blodet)

Cast: Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale)

Rating: R

Runtime: 137 min.

by John DeSando

“There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”

Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Apparently 18th century Denmark smelled just as bad as it did in that renowned play more than a century before. A Royal Affair, in the Masterpiece Theater tradition, is an engrossing historical drama splendid with period costumes and court intrigue, from adultery to insanity and bad guys everywhere.  It’s amusing, informative, and long.

Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is a common doc who has the fortune, both good and bad, to become the King of Denmark’s personal surgeon, seduce the Brit-born Queen, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and have a child with her. King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) makes the liaison easy because he’s daffy and trusts Johann implicitly. As we have learned from drama and life itself, such shenanigans last only so long and in this case long enough for real good to be done before the heads roll.

The plot is divided between the love affair and the laws Johann and the Queen get the King to enact before his enemies wise up to the manipulation and the couple’s illegitimate daughter.  Those laws, in the freedom-resounding spirit of the Enlightenment, are aimed at relieving the poor and spreading equality.

I would have preferred seeing the results of more legislation like the smallpox vaccinations mandate and less of the romance, but then I am satisfied that the scenes with the King’s cabinet (not as impassioned as the legislature in Lincoln) are ample enough to show how it out-maneuvered  his highness.

The acting is first-rate, from Mikkelsen’s portrayal of stoic sensuality, a Danish Jefferson if you will, to Vikander’s goodness and simplicity. In fact, the two actors, appearing genuinely to like each other, create a believable passion that spawns freedom and King Frederick, who will renew the doctor’s good works when he takes the crown.

Although quite a bit of historical territory is covered in 137 minutes, maybe too much, I came away with a much better understanding of Danish history and the impending French and American revolutions.  It’s not called “Enlightenment” for nothing!


If ignorance and passion are the foes of popular morality, it must be confessed that moral indifference is the malady of the cultivated classes. The modern separation of enlightenment and virtue, of thought and conscience, of the intellectual aristocracy from the honest and common crowd is the greatest danger that can threaten liberty. Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881)

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at

He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel and Idol Chatter.

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