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‘A Royal Affair’ Review: Love, Intrigue Make for Danish Delight

Eighteenth-century Denmark is the setting for "A Royal Affair," a compelling tale of love and intrigue in the age of Enlightenment

It’s always good to be reminded that love, sex and political scandals existed well before our own time. And that when it comes to royals, England’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana weren’t the first to have a rotten marriage.

“A Royal Affair,” a terrific Danish film (with English subtitles), recounts an episode involving blue bloods and political intrigue during the 18th century. It’s a corker of a story that is well known in Denmark — it is taught in school there — but likely will be unfamiliar to most American viewers.

In 1766, Princess Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander), 15, a member of the British royal family, was shipped off to Denmark to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), who was unstable and likely seriously mentally ill. Not surprisingly, the marriage was an unhappy one. Eventually, the young Queen fell in love with and began an affair with her husband’s physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who shared her interest in the literature and ideas of the Enlightenment.

Together, the lovers managed to take over power from the pliable King and enacted numerous major social reforms intended to improve the lives of the common people. This didn’t go over well with high-ranking members of the royal court. Upon seeing both their power and purses reduced, they conspired against the Queen and her doctor beau.

That’s the basic outline of the story director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel (“Truth About Men”) tells in this compelling costume drama. Rather than concentrate on the pomp and pageantry of court life, this is very much an intimate tale of love and intrigue with a close focus kept on the three principle players, the Queen, the King and the good doctor.

Above all, this is a love story. Caroline Mathilda and Dr. Struensee are in love with each
other and with the good they can do for Denmark if they can wield power. It proves a heady and dangerous combination.

Mikkelsen, the sharp-featured Danish star familiar from "Casino Royale" and "Clash of the Titans," makes for an attractive leading man as the physician- reformer, intent of purpose and sympathetic. The Swedish-born Vikander ably suggests the young Queen’s confusion and unhappiness, which makes her vulnerable to trying to grab what happiness she can, even if it means a covert affair. And Følsgaard manages to make the capricious king almost into a figure of sympathy, someone who by an accident of birth finds himself in a job and a situation for which he is woefully ill equipped.

Deign to see this Danish drama. It offers a fascinating history lesson and — the best part — there's no quiz afterward.