Photo by Magnolia Pictures
With his chiseled features and heavy-lidded eyes, Mads Mikkelsen has the face of a villain. He was James Bond's enemy in "Casino Royale," he played a murderous thug in Nicholas Winding Refn's "Pusher" trilogy and he's even going play Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter in the upcoming TV show. But in "A Royal Affair, " Mikkelsen proves that he's got more acting tricks in his quiver than just playing the heavy.
The movie is set largely in 1760s Denmark. Though the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau and company were just starting to catch fire in the rest of Europe, Denmark, ruled by the clergy and conservative noblemen, was doing its best to keep the Enlightenment from crossing its borders. Enter English noblewoman Carolina Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) who has been betrothed to the Danish king Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Upon arriving in Copenhagen, she learns that many of her books have been deemed dangerous and shipped back to her home country. Worse, King Christian proves more Buster Bluth than Prince Charming — a feeble-minded man-child whose bizarre behavior proves to be less than regal. Hoping to curb the king's antics, the court hires physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen) to be essentially the royal babysitter.
Though he calls himself a "simple village doctor," Struensee is a man of the Enlightenment and author of numerous anonymously-penned pamphlets. He soon shows the king the joys of individual freedoms by letting him go to a brothel. Along the way, he slowly accumulates political power until he is running the country. His enlightened ideas and, of course, his rugged good looks soon garner the attention of the lovelorn Carolina. For anyone who's studied history or simply watched "Game of Thrones," you know that once the queen and Struensee start making goo-goo eyes at each other, it isn't going to end well.
The movie's title might lead you to believe that "A Royal Affair" is a bodice-ripping romance with lots of heavy breathing and longing looks. And sure, there's plenty of that. But this is really a character study of a tragic figure. And Mikkelsen, who finally has a role he can sink his teeth into, plays the part with admirable subtlety and soul, effortlessly transitioning from the care-free libertine at the beginning of the movie to the compromised anti-hero at the end. Director Nikolaj Arcel gives the movie a polished, unfussy treatment that is sure to be rewarded come Oscar season. Not surprisingly, it's Denmark's selection for the best foreign-language Academy Award.
The maddening thing about Struensee is that all of his reforms -- universal smallpox vaccine, the abolition of torture, a free press — all seem admirably forward thinking. (At one point in the movie, he even gets fan mail from none other than Voltaire.) But his personal peccadillos and an unfortunate naivete about political power prove to be his undoing. One leaves the film sensing that if Struensee had read less Rousseau and more Machiavelli, he would not have been a mere historical footnote.
See a clip from 'A Royal Affair':