The Danish director explains how he successfully made a period film for people who don't like them.
6 Jun 2012 - 3:52 PM  UPDATED 28 May 2019 - 12:35 PM

Danish director and screenwriter Nicolaj Arcel made his name as the screenwriter of the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first part of Millennium trilogy. Yet the 39-year-old is quick to point out that he directed two films (2004's King's Game and 2007's Island of Lost Souls) before that. Now he has made A Royal Affair, which he describes as a much bigger deal in terms of its cost and scope.

"We are not that fascinated with the old dressings and the ceremony and all that. We just go for what happened between these people."

“I was excited when the Berlin Festival invited the film to be part of its competition and that so many countries have bought it,” he told me last February in Berlin before the film went on to win two Silver Bears for best screenplay (Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) and best actor (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). “This is the first of my films to receive that kind of attention.”

While it didn't hurt that the unusual period romp stars the country's charismatic leading man Mads Mikkelsen (After the Wedding, Casino Royale) and the up-and-coming Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (soon to be seen in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina), the most riveting element is the true story itself. It follows the unhinged eighteenth century King Christian VII (Følsgaard) who insisted that his forward-thinking doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen) give him advise on running the country. Problems arise when Struensee falls for Vikander's Queen Caroline Matilde, a British Royal who is locked in a loveless marriage to the kind of king who might these days be diagnosed as bipolar. As the affair heats up, Struensee is unabashedly running the country so that the conservative powerbrokers seize on his illicit affair to get rid of him and restore conservative order to the land.

Above all this is a romance, and anyone who saw 46-year-old Mikkelsen in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky can attest to his screen magnetism, while 23-year-old Vikander, who recalls a young Natalie Portman, is impressive as well.

“Everything is really dependant on the actors having chemistry with each other,” Arcel admits. “I didn't worry about their age difference that much. I worried about it before I saw them together and then I did a casting deliberately to see how they would look together on screen before we actually cast Alicia. She looks very grown up and mature and it doesn't seem like she is a little girl, and he is an old man.

“For me, romance was new territory as I hadn't done that before. But I'm a huge romantic and I love the big old epics like Gone with the Wind. I have seen so many of them loads of times. I am sort of a little bit of a girl,” he admits reluctantly. “None of my male friends like these films at all! It was nice to indulge in this world and this romanticised ideal version of love, of forbidden love and passion. In the end, it came quite naturally to us because we knew we had a good story. It was a melodrama where so much happens and we had good actors who were always delivering exactly what I'd hoped for.”

In Berlin critics were saying that A Royal Affair is a period film for people who don't like period films – a bit like the smash television hit Downton Abbey.

“I am happy about that because period films are often made for people who watch period films. I thought it would be nice to do something just at least slightly different from your average period film.”

So what's different about it? “I think we are more overt, more modern and closer to the characters. We are not that fascinated with the old dressings and the ceremony and all that. We just go for what happened between these people.”

Arcel says the film cost around $7 million “which is not a lot. We had to be very precise in the planning so we didn't waste any time on all sorts of ideas that we didn't then use. We only shot what we knew we had to use.”

He dispensed with some of the characters and used the contrivance of a letter Queen Caroline Matilde wrote to her children as a means of telling the story. “I am not sure whether she did write a letter or not,” Arcel explains. “I just thought it fitted quite well into the story.”

Vikander had to brush up on her Danish for the role. “She studied for more than three months,” Arcel notes. “Danish is quite different.” Still, that's nothing unusual these days.

Crown Princess Mary, the former Mary Donaldson from Tasmania, attended the Danish premiere on March 28. Arcel knew she was going to be there when we spoke in Berlin.

“I feel very honoured. I think it's very fitting that she should be there as she is also an English-speaking person coming to the Royal realm.”

She's doing a rather amazing job at it, and speaking fluent Danish, I suggest.
“I don't really follow those things much but we are all kind of infatuated with Mary, there's no doubt about that.”


Watch 'A Royal Affair' now at SBS On Demand:

What's it about?
A young queen, who is married to an insane king, falls secretly in love with his physician – and together they start a revolution that changes a nation forever.