A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affære) is a romantic docudrama about 18th-century Denmark where the unstable King Christian VII neglects his young queen, Caroline Mathilde, who falls in love with his German physician.  This film is based on a true story of an arranged marriage between England and Denmark, whose king is to marry his English cousin when they are both in their teens.  So this youngest sister of England’s King George III travels to Denmark to marry a king she knows nothing about personally.  Yes, it is an arranged marriage by monarchs for future heirs, hopefully sons.  That is bad enough but worse when a girl marries someone with mental defects who does not know how to treat a woman, especially his wife.  The king is very immature, and his council likes the fact that he can be manipulated — until a German house physician is brought in for the king, and they become compadres.  Together with the young Queen these three want to make changes in Denmark, but the council will not allow it, because they want to remain rich and behind the times.  Watch what real traditional conservatives are, as expressed by the nobles and priests in this movie.  In 1769 this German outsider, Johann Struensee, arrived in Copenhagen as the physician and companion to the deranged king.  Struensee eventually became the lover of the queen.  With her agreement, and the acquiescence of the king, he took over the running of the state and attempted to transform Denmark into a model of enlightened absolutism, following the ideas of Voltaire and the French Enlightenment.  By the end of that year Struensee made great political strides in a country that until then had the most complete absolute monarchy left in Europe.  The result was that Struensee and Caroline Mathilde had a daughter, who was assumed to be the king’s child.  As their radical reforms multiplied, a conspiracy formed between the mother of the king and the king’s counsel, who brought adultery charges against the doctor.  Chaos mounted; enemies massed; violence and tragedy ensued.  The director is creditably true to the facts — at no point does he seriously deviate from the historical record.  But this is a feature film docudrama, not a documentary attempt to recreate the past.  Strikingly, however, the film does not so much embellish the past as tone it down.  Caroline Mathilde in the film is naturally prettier than her plump blond original, who was more daring too  When her daughter by Struensee was born, she insisted that he deliver their child himself, though the film shows him anxiously waiting outside the room.  Similarly King Christian VII is brilliantly portrayed by Mikkel Foelsgaard as a childlike, confused figure, who finds a real friend in Struensee.  In life, Christian, though undoubtedly intelligent and intermittently full of charm, was a much more extreme personality: violent, delusional and inconsolably terrified.  She as his queen is also much less angry.  The film shows her being seemingly reconciled to her resulting exile in a Hanoverian castle belonging to her brother; in life she was furious and spent her years there plotting to regain her throne and the two children she had been forced to abandon in Denmark.  A real coin from that time satirizes the affair.  It looks innocuous on one side, a Danish krone from 1771.  Turn it over though and you see a crown and, below it, a vagina clearly engraved.  The coin is a piece of satire or slander — the queen Caroline Mathilde, it says, is a whore.  In Copenhagen, where the original coin was passed from hand to hand, everyone knew that the queen’s lover was a commoner and a foreigner, this German doctor Struensee.  Everyone also knew that the king, Christian VII (r.1766-1808), was disabled by a malady of the mind and unfit to govern the country.  Caroline Mathilde, or rather her lover, usurped the place of the king, says the coin in its crude way.  The libelous fake krone clearly comes from an angry environment, and it tells us that the years between 1769 and 1772 in Danish history form a historical episode that defies simple explanation.  This is the first film to tackle the story.  It is a beautiful film, like the historical epics of Luchino Visconti.  Stella Tillyard has written a book which tells Caroline Mathilde’s astonishing story,and the book is also titled A Royal Affair.  Also many other novels, plays, histories, and a ballet have been written about the king, the queen and her lover.  The first fictional account, Memoirs of an Unfortunate Queen, was published in London in 1776, only a year after Caroline Mathilde died alone in exile.  That work of fiction presented her as an advanced radical, cradling a book by Voltaire as her carriage rolled away from London on her way to marry the king.  For the next century at least the episode was tainted by Struensee’s Germanness and regarded as a violent extremity that had little in common with Denmark’s slow evolution into a social democratic state.  This film marks a return to a positive version of the story.  In his reforming zeal and democratic libertarianism, Struensee represents the Denmark that was to come.  These events preceded by a few years the Revolutions in America and France.  And the hero of the drama?  Struensee was in fact described at the time by the British ambassador as having “carried freedom of thinking as far as any man” by the time he encountered Christian VII in 1768.  The ambassador was alarmed by Struensee’s disdain for religion and established authority:  “It cannot easily be determined whether his talents are more formidable, his principles more relaxed, or his address more seducing”, he reported.  These are the qualities of a star, and the actor Mads Mikkelsen is absolutely superb as Struensee (a soulful Mads with long hair, additionally yummy!)  The performances are powerful.  The story is fascinating, full of intelligence and heart.  It is riveting and so very moving.  This is a completely beautiful film in all ways!  Very lavish production, art direction, screenplay, acting, directing, photography — all of it is just magnificent.  It’s a brilliant perfect film, actually.  I avoided this because of how typical the cover photo made it look like a standard romance.  Wish I’d watched it sooner.  I loved it.  You’ll have to see the film yourself.  Docudrama Romance 2012 R 2hr17m.  (This review has been adapted mainly from:  http://www.historytoday.com/stella-tillyard/heads-and-tales-royal-affair)


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