Movie review: A Royal Affair (2012)

A Royal Affair is a film well worth seeing, fulfilling the criteria of a really good film by moving the viewer to think and to feel. This 2012 Dutch film covers a period in Denmark’s history when a spark of change briefly flickered before finally catching fire a decade or so later.

Frankly, I know nothing about Denmark’s history. I didn’t realize that the Enlightenment seemed to sweep over Europe but ignored Denmark. Or that a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, anonymously authored tracts spouting ideas of the Enlightenment—ideas of man’s equality—and ended up in a position of power in Denmark where he helped enact liberal reforms, albeit reforms that were briefly lived, such as freedom of the press, a ban on the slave trade, and the abolition of torture.

Sadly, he was a man before his time…but enough of that or I risk giving the whole plot away. Suffice it to say that in between this grand sweep of historical elements is a human theme.

Mads Mikkelsen does a wonderful job as the doctor. I recognized his face but couldn’t place where I knew the actor. Perhaps him speaking Dutch rather than English helped in that regard. His performance has me wanting to see him in more roles.

Alicia Vikander also played a strong role as the queen to the seemingly mentally ill King of Denmark, shipped over from England to bear his children. One could feel the anguish coming from her and empathize with where she found herself in life: a life of unhappiness punctuated in the middle by a brief period of joy. Emphasis on brief.

My sympathies for the king fluctuated from dislike to repulsion to admiration that he stood up for principles to dismay when he lost himself again. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard played the role well, able to evoke such strong emotional reactions from me.

I heartily recommend this film, though some non-Dutch speakers may be put off by the need to read subtitles. The film stirred in me the desire to read Rousseau again…in the original French no less…as well as other authors from the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Locke, Hobbes, Mary Wollstonecraft. I found myself cheering for the humanist ideals. Viva la revolution!

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