A Royal Affair: Behind the throne
A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 15)
Late September (Jon Sanders, 15)
By the time you read this the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations will be a soggy memory. It’s an event I marked with magisterial indifference: as crowds gathered to cheer under Union Jack umbrellas, I went to see Prometheus (it was pretty good!)
From this you can surmise that I’m a committed sceptic when it comes to the monarchy. You can further deduce that my views on films about the monarchy are a bit coloured. Mostly I approach them in the way Richard Dawkins might react to a biopic of a medieval pope: with a shrug and a sigh of, so what? In the case of a film like The King’s Speech, where biographical detail comes larded with dollops of forelock-tugging reverence, my blood boils.
So I was wary about A Royal Affair, a new Danish film based on the goings-on at the court of Danish king Christian VII, in the late 1700s. It’s a lavish, beautifully photographed affair, with nice frocks, big wigs and extravagant sets.
These are exactly the things that make Oscar voters weak at the knees, especially given the premise, which sees an unconventional medical man – German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee – assigned to treat Christian’s mood swings, so that the king can fulfil his destiny to rule.
It sounds like The King’s Speech meets The Madness of King George. But in fact, A Royal Affair is much less deferential than those two Academy-award winners, marked by an ambivalence towards its crowned subject that almost counts as radical in the world of the royal biopic.
For one, its hero Johann, played with quiet authority by Mads Mikkelsen, is a ‘man of the Enlightenment’, a political progressive and follower of anti-establishment thinkers like Voltaire. If never an avowed republican, at the very least he sees the institution as an archaic absurdity – literally, given that the king is so obviously mad.
Using his influence with the troubled monarch to introduce liberal laws into Denmark, Johann falls for Christian’s wife, Queen Caroline Mathilde, and attracts the enmity of the nobility. Johann and Caroline’s illicit romance is the focus of the film. Despite a winning performance by Alicia Vikander as Caroline, this element is the least convincing – all swoony clichés and syrupy sentimentality.
The court intrigue, however, grips. The director Nikolaj Arcel wrote the screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the atmosphere of sinister paranoia around the aristocratic plotters against Johann owes a debt to that Swedish crime drama.
There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, a climate of festering decay ripe for change. And yet to claim this handsome period drama as a stirring call to republicanism is to go too far. As the power behind the throne, the commoner Johann is unable to enact his progressive agenda, and it’s left to Christian’s successor – another, more enlightened king – to reform the country.
Plus, the only view we get of the people en masse is as a mob, baying for blood at a public execution. So much for the virtues of democracy.
Such is the tone of A Royal Affair: a gloomy, catch-all (possibly very Scandinavian) doomed romanticism in which all forms of power are equally corrupting. The result will offend neither monarchists nor republicans. Possibly too subtle and muted a drama to endure as a serious Oscar contender, but I’ll take this over The King’s Speech any day.
And another thing…
Produced on a tiny budget with a small crew, Late September is a low-key but delicate drama about the strains on a middle-aged couple’s marriage.
The Sting (1973)
Once upon a time life was more genteel. It wasn’t evil bankers and wicked taxmen stealing our cash, but loveable rogues like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In the setting of depression-era Chicago, the pair play two conmen attempting to scam an illegal gambling outfit run by the despicable Robert Shaw. Besides the sumptuous period detail and jaunty ragtime score, the film remains popular because of the ingenious script and a plot concealing a sting in its tail.
Director: George Roy Hill. Out now on Blu-ray