There is a scene about half way through Nikolaj Arcel’s slightly overlong and slightly overpraised historical romance about the love triangle between Danish king Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), his English queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and their German doctor Johann Friedrich Stuensee(Mads Mikkelsen), where the doctor tells Christian he could be a great king.
If we view that speech as sincere (which I believe the film’s technically-a-downer-but-morally-a-vindication ending invites us to do), we must conclude that the doctor and his regal mistress are doubly put upon by circumstances. They would be the decent folks that their Enlightenment rhetoric tells them (and us) they are–he a simple but sincere doctor who believes in progress, she a faithful wife in an arranged marriage for the good of all Europe–if only they were not placed in a situation where the ideals forming that rhetoric were impossible to live out.
Her problem is that she thinks Christian really is mad; his is that Christians in Denmark and on the king’s court are hypocrites and mad for power. At this point the film is set up for a standard historical conflict between religious bigots and men of reason. The odd thing about this one, though, is that until the final five minute coda, the film complicates that conflict by showing these forces not as opposites but rather as mirrors of one another.
It’s not just the matter of the adultery, although that is bad enough. In most of his tenure as the king’s adviser, Struensee evidences all the faults he deplores in his opposition: he pressures Christian to sign an edict allowing him to pass laws without the consent of the king, abrogating his role as adviser for a more subtle coup d’etat; he distracts the king by finding him a negro boy to be his plaything despite his professed abhorrence at the medieval system of serfdom and peasant ownership; he manipulates the king into sleeping with his estranged wife so that her as-yet-undetected pregnancy will not be evidence of her affair. The latter is done despite the insinuation that intercourse could be harmful to the wife and fetus. (Is the implication that the king may have some sort of sexually transmitted disease? Even if it is not, the potentiality exists, as a doctor would surely know.)
The difference between a protagonist who is internally conflicted and one who is externally thwarted is one which separates the good film that was from the great film that might have been. Struensee should be a tragic figure shocked and pained by his own compromises–a more sympathetic Michael Corleone if you will.
The film wants to have it both ways, however, with Struensee and Caroline enlightened politically however selfish they are romantically. In fact, their mutual distaste for the religious zealotry and political excesses of the age is what is supposed to unite them. In this, too, the epilogue works against itself. Caroline makes a rational appeal to her son, whom we are told was able to enact the reforms she and Struensee both wanted. Was the reason he was able to succeed simply time? Perhaps, though it does say the heir had help from his father at defeating the court. Perhaps the son was not encumbered by the xenophobia, or perhaps he did not have to balance the concerns of ruling with those of hiding the secrets of the bedroom. Whatever the reason, the father-son alliance ends up belying the film’s central premise that good intentions justify cutting moral corners when the desired outcomes cannot be achieved any other way. It turns out there usually is another way.
For all that, the film is still successful. The visuals are achingly beautiful, and the acting is superb. Nor is A Royal Affair simply a triumph of style over substance. There is a bracing quality to its moral vision, however compromised by its oversimplifications. The themes of surrendering to a self-torturing, illicit passion is rote, but the theme of struggling with a temptation to seize power for the greater good…well, okay, it’s pretty rote, too. But the second theme is drawn to perfection here, allowing A Royal Affair to act as a foil for such films as A Man for All Seasons, Agora, The Godfather, V for Vendetta, Dave, Conspiracy, and Gandhi. Those films are of varying quality, of course, but each in its way is about how temptations that threaten to dethrone our better angels are either withstood or countenanced. When the temptation is withstood and some larger goal is achieved even at the cost of personal sacrifice, we have an inspirational tale. When the temptation is the means through which that higher ideals are thwarted we have a cautionary one.
A Royal Affair is a really stellar example of the latter. I’m just not sure it knows it. In trying to convince us that it is, or could be, the former, it appears to convince only itself.