Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lee Liberman on last year's BFLF Oscar nominee: Nicolaj Arcel's fascinating A ROYAL AFFAIR

First, A ROYAL AFFAIR (2012) is a story of doomed love that works with a glass of wine and a tissue box. Second, it's a true tale from Denmark that oddly creates context for our own American Revolution. A.O Scott, The New York Times movie critic, rightly called it an "advanced placement bodice-ripper" for its entertaining and useful blend of romance, scandal, and history. Evidently based on both the 1999 book, "The Royal Physician's Visit," by Per Olov Enquist, and "Prinsesse af blodet," an erotic novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth, the film was directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel (shown below), nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won a Golden Globe in 2013. It streams on Netflix.

The story unfolds in the Eighteenth-Century Age of Enlightenment when intellectual ferment began to embrace the individual, science, and reason, displacing Catholic dogma as life's filter.

Denmark in the early 1700's is run by Catholic dogmatists out of step with political change -- their Denmark, they believe, is the last decent outpost in a depraved Europe. The conser-vative privy council is in league with Dowager Queen Juliane Marie, pious stepmother of the infantile, mentally ill young King Christian VII, whom Juliane hopes to replace with her own son. The council runs the country coaxing Christian to sign its decrees. An arrange-ment is made with King George III of England to marry off his 15-year-old sister to Christian. (Yes -- the same King George who taxed our colonies into revolution).

Played by lovely young Swedish actress shown above, Alicia Vikander (Kitty in Anna Karenina ), British Princess Caroline Mathilde sets foot on her new homeland as a hopeful bride to discover that her spouse is infantile and very unpleasant husband material. They have a son, Frederik, and soon the council hires a doctor to treat Christian who wallows in brothels and makes a spectacle of himself in public.(Two modern theories of his condition are schizophrenia and Porphyria. In this telling, it looked to me more like bi-polar illness combined with mental retardation.) 

Christian's new German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, shown above, right, and below, left), brought with him from Europe the Enlightenment era writings of Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. To describe Struensee in our own terms, he believed in the 99% rather than the top 1%. He could have been John Adams who famously said "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write." (Adams and the German doctor were born two years apart.) Before his Danish assignment, 'free-thinker' Struensee wrote papers on issues of freedom and individual human rights.

Young Queen Caroline, enamored of both Age of Reason thinking and its messenger, collaborated with Struensee to excite and influence Christian in a more humane policy direction. They had gained some leverage, as Struensee was able to manage Christian's infantile behavior and gain his confidence and friendship. They began by coaching Christian to propose that the city sewers and associated stench and health hazards be cleaned up -- "a war on shit". More suggestions follow --smallpox inoculation, a home for unwanted children and unwed mothers. Conservative privy council Minister Guldberg's disgusted assessment is that Christian's new ideas practically reward women for lechery (where have we heard that lately).

As new laws are suggested, the council blames the young Queen (now pregnant with Struensee's child) and the Doctor ("the foreigner") for Christian's interference in state business. They attempt to have Struensee arrested, but Christian by now differentiates bad government from good. He dismisses the entire council and installs the doctor as his chief and only minister. Struensee's tenure was under two years, but it jump-started backward Denmark by abolishing corporal punishment and torture of prisoners, ending capital punishment for theft, permitting freedom of the press, reducing revenues to nobility, banning slave trade, et al. Minister Guldberg says to Struensee, "You are destroying my country," to which the doctor replies, "Who is destroying the country: the King, or someone who believes the earth was created in six days?"

The affair is discovered and a palace coup leads to the doctor's demise and the banishment of Queen Caroline. Denmark regresses again until years later, Christian and Caroline's son, 16-year-old Prince Frederik, supported by his father, expels the old guard and reinstates the enlightened rule of Christian and Dr. Struensee. Frederik VI ruled for 55 years and is said to have expanded on his father's reforms by abolishing serfdom and liberating the peasants.

Struensee died in 1772 shortly before the upcoming American and French Revolutions. The commoner doctor's writings and actions were part of the firmament that led our founders and French citizenry to press for individual freedoms. (Our founders were not gods but products of European Age of Reason thinking.)

The players in the film are gaining presence in the US, especially Mr. Mikkelsen -- Danish actor and celebrity who starred in The Hunt, Flame and Citron, and After the Wedding, all worth watching on Netflix. (He's also had parts in a number of big budget American films.) Ms Vikander's profile here is about to expand with coming releases of The Seventh Son and The Man From UNCLE (where she has the female lead opposite Henry Cavill). Both Mikkelson and Vikander began their careers in dance, evident in a fleeting, magnetic moment of heated restraint as they dance together on the evening their affair is consummated.

The liveliest material goes to Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (shown above and below) as young King Christian VII, for which he won a best actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012. Følsgaard creates a believable portrait of a mentally ill child-man unable to function as an adult while having innate sense. He is sympathetic as he vacillates between infantile and courageous acts, blossoming under the intelligent caring of his wife and doctor.

It was quite a three-way until stepmother Queen Juliane and Minister Guldburg used the discovery of the affair to carry out a palace coup and turn the clock back on their country.

You can stream A Royal Affair now via Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, or watch it on DVD or Blu-ray, for either rental or purchase.

This post was written by Lee Liberman, 
who will be joining us now and again 
--maybe weekly--to cover the occasional film.
Her ability to weave both history and criticism 
into her writing is much appreciated by TrustMovies. 

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