As royal intrigues go, the Danish give the Brits and French a run for their money

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


A Royal Affair
July 11-14, RPL Film Theatre
4 out of 5

Among the many oddities of broadcast television are two series that met radically different fates in spite of sharing a similar premise: a brilliant psychopath and a barely functional detective face off in a gruesome game with no predetermined rules. One of them, The Following — a singularly obtuse entry in the serial killer canon — prospered in the ratings, while the immensely superior Hannibal only got renewed because NBC already sold the rights overseas.

Hannibal is a find: Elegant, nightmarish and weirdly compelling (must be all those therapy sessions), the show’s MVP is appropriately the good ol’ Dr. Lecter (played here by Mads Mikkelsen). Hollywood keeps pigeonholing Mikkelsen as a villain (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Rochefort in The Three Musketeers), but the Dane is a more effective leading man than most of his peers in North America.

The superb A Royal Affair should give you a good idea of his potential.

A historical piece far more fascinating than your average Versailles intrigue, A Royal Affair follows the significant love triangle between King Christian VII, Queen Caroline Mathilde and the monarch’s personal physician, Dr. Struensse. Their bond has shaped Danish society into the present day.

British aristocrat Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina) has a fondness for progressive thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire. Her liberal leanings are abruptly curbed by her marriage to Christian VII, the mentally unstable king of Denmark. Not only is Christian a bore and likely schizophrenic (Hamlet is a model of stability by comparison), his regime is one of oppression and religious dominance. The monarch ruled over his kingdom only in paper; a council of noblemen were the ones actually pulling the strings.

It all changes with the arrival of Dr. Johann Struensse (Mikkelsen) a German expat who shares the queen’s political sensibilities. Struensse earns the king’s friendship and begins to contain his unraveling. Soon, the physician is instructing Denmark’s ruler about matters of public health and eventually wrestles the power away from the council.

For Caroline, Struensse is the soulmate she never expected to find. Soon enough, she is sharing her bed with her husband’s most trusted advisor.

As portrayed by Mikkelsen, Struensse is not a master manipulator but a man of the people who finds himself in plum position to tackle inequality. The forward-thinking counselor led the king to abolish censorship, implement a widespread vaccination program, end torture and suspend noble privileges. Not shockingly, some of this measures came back to bite him.

The affair with Queen Caroline didn’t lead directly to Struensse’s fall. A conservative pushback headed by Christian’s stepmother ended the liberal experiment. Another of the doctor’s miscalculations was to assume the same people whose quality of life increased considerably during his shadow regime would rise in his defence. He was never the face of the new legislation. In the eyes of the populace, Struensse was just a foreigner with too much access (bigotry: Conservatives’ most reliable weapon since the beginning of time).

Mads Mikkelsen and up-and-comer Alicia Vikander (soon to be seen in several Hollywood movies unbecoming of her talent) are brilliant without bringing attention to themselves. No such luck with the actor plucked from obscurity to portray Christian VII. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard is all mannerisms and zero substance, and he knocks the movie down a couple of pegs.

Still, A Royal Affair proves that not all Danish flicks are twisted nightmares out of Lars Von Trier’s head.