It may be a steamy and sumptuous bodice-ripper, but “A Royal Affair” aspires to much more and succeeds in becoming a thoughtful and universal period piece.
An Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, the 18th-century costume drama plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as part of its annual Oscar Tune Up.
Denmark's official Academy Award entry, “A Royal Affair” begins in England, where teen Princess Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) believes her dream of becoming queen of an exotic land is coming true when she is wed to Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) without meeting him.
She's heard her husband is charming and a fellow art lover, but when she actually arrives in Denmark, the new bride discovers he's also given to mood swings, inappropriate outbursts and bouts of depression. Some of his behavior is pure royal petulance, but Christian exhibits telltale signs of mental illness, too. And since he's king, no one does much to intervene.
In fact, the powerful royal council prefers that Christian leave the governing to them, and since he'd rather debauch himself with alcohol and prostitutes, he easily obliges. The state of Denmark is definitely rotten: The people's suffering is immense, and even Caroline Mathilde can't escape the strict censorship laws, as half her beloved book collection is confiscated.
The young queen is not equipped to deal with her husband's erratic behavior, so once she's done her duty of producing an heir, she locks herself away in the palace and resigns herself to a life in a gilded cage.
When Christian falls ill while touring Altona, a Danish colony in Germany, a pair of down-on-their-luck noblemen (Cyron Bjorn Melville and Thomas W. Gabrielsson) approach local doctor Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and propose that he apply for the position as the king's personal physician. If Struensee gets the job and helps them resume their roles in the royal court, they won't reveal the doctor's secret identity as a student of the burgeoning Enlightenment and the anonymous author of several verboten pamphlets advocating for sweeping reform.
In his interview, Struensee and Christian bond over their affection for Shakespeare, and the doctor quickly becomes not just the king's physician but also his father figure and constant companion.
When they arrive back in Denmark, the queen doesn't initially trust the doctor, despite his knack for redirecting the king's worst impulses. Once she discovers his secret collection of Enlightenment literature, though, Struensee and Caroline Mathilde bond over their mutual devotion to free thinking and high ideals.
The physician becomes confidante to both royals. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, he sits holding hands with the couple after inoculating their young son from smallpox. It's a poignant foreshadowing of how complicated their love triangle would become.
As their relationship moves from avid talks and long walks to passionate secret trysts, though, Struensee and Caroline Mathilde provide their political enemies — especially the king's scheming stepmother (Trine Dyrholm) and a power-hungry priest (David Dencik) — with ample means and opportunity to counter their idealistic crusade.
A framing device of the exiled queen penning a heartrending letter to her far-off children makes some of the outcomes clear, but the period drama remains gripping to the end, which is not as grim as it might have been. Sensitive performances from the three principles keep it captivating.
Thanks to top-notch work from cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk, production designer Niels Sejer and costumer Manon Rasmussen, “A Royal Affair” is gorgeous to watch.
— Brandy McDonnell