When British princess Carolina Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is introduced to her husband, Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), he warns her, “Don’t steal my light.” But the spotlight, as it turns out, isn’t what she craves. Quickly estranged from her husband, whose libertine habits give way to more widespread mental instability, she takes comfort in the calm presence of royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), whose covert dedication to Enlightenment ideals clashes with the country’s pious leadership. Europe is being transformed, and across the ocean, the American Revolution is only a decade away, but Denmark lags behind.
The title of A Royal Affair, as well as the framing structure that has the exiled queen relating events in a letter to her estranged children, presages cuckoldry to come, but Vikander and Mikkelsen’s romance is slow to blossom, and not especially gripping when it does. Theirs is a courtship of the mind, more urgently than of the body. They exchange thoughts on Locke and Rousseau—“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”—and the ideas eventually make their way to the feeble-minded king, who memorizes Streunsee’s speeches to recite to his high council.
Mikkelsen and Vikander are both stars in Denmark, and Nikolaj Arcel’s period piece has the trappings of an overstuffed costume drama like The Duchess, but it’s thankfully more limber than it initially suggests. Mikkelsen’s eyes convey Struensee’s intellectual intensity without need for ponderous speeches, and Vikander has ample opportunity to try variations on her effectively anguished scream. Newcomer Følsgaard is the wild card, but he manages to make the king both villain and victim, sometimes a vindictive schemer, at others far-eyed and helpless, a puppet for the forces behind him.
In championing the Enlightenment rationality (yay!) over religious superstition (boo!), A Royal Affair presents little genuine conflict: What unresolved issues remain are wrapped up by a closing text card. But at least for a while, Arcel manages to animate the long-settled debate, at least until the inevitability of its resolution becomes too clear to overlook.