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En kongelig affære

November 17, 2012
En kongelig affære

The ’60s were an era of great social upheaval, whether you’re talking about the 1960s or the 1760s. Denmark stood as a holdout against the Enlightenment, but during the reign if king Christian VII the modernizing trends broke through in a big way. En kongelig affære — subtitled in English as A Royal Affair — tells this story. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to believe that nobody will care if it isn’t punched up with a lurid, melodramatic love triangle.

Now, I know that it’s true that Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) was a German doctor and freethinker who rose to unprecedented power as advisor to Christian (Mikkel Følsgaard) — attempting in the process to implement numerous progressive reforms — and he did have an affair with Queen Catherine Mathilde (Alicia Vikander). But is that love affair really the most interesting story to be told about the Enlightenment in Denmark?

There is, for instance, all sorts of other palace intrigue going around. Early on we are introduced to Christan’s stepmother, Queen Dowager Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm), who wants her son, Christian’s half-brother, on the throne, but her character is undeveloped beyond that point. There are also the other ministers — in those days the title was meant pretty literally — who felt threatened by the reforms. As far as we can tell they range from the leader, Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik), who really does want to do what he believes is best for Denmark while advancing his own power, to pawns like Schack Carl Rantzau (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) who just want to do whatever is necessary to stay rich. There’s very little in the way of fleshing out any of these archetypes into real characters, much less developing their interactions with each other.

Not that the main characters — aside from Struensee — fare much better. Much ado is made of Christian’s “madness”, but we see little of it. To be sure, the actual Christian VII was afflicted with severe mental illness, now thought most likely to have been schizophrenia, but what Følsgaard portrays looks more like bipolar mania, if even that. In fact, to take the film at face value suggests that Christian is merely a boorish, bawdy brat without the temperament for politics or leadership, and while this may make for a fine socialite it makes for a poor king. It is not, however, mental illness.

And what about how the Danish Enlightenment sits in a wider historical context? Struensee joined the royal entourage in 1768 and his major influence lasted until 1772, during which time plenty of other stuff was going on. The names of Rousseau and Voltaire are dropped, but there’s little connection drawn between the Danish reforms and those in other European nations, either in comparison or in contrast. As just one obvious example: Caroline Mathilde was a sister of George III; how did her taste in Enlightenment literature go over in England as that nation was dealing with the mess that such freethinkers were causing in at least one cluster of its colonies?

The reign of Christian VII of Denmark is a fascinating and important period of European history, to be sure. It’s just a shame that we have to filter it through yet another overwrought love story.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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