A young queen (Alicia Vikander), who is married to an insane king, falls secretly in love with his physician (Mads Mikkelsen) – and together they start a revolution that changes a nation forever.

Sumptuous costume drama illuminates a dark chapter in Denmark’s history.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Cuckolded Royals have been an unseemly tradition in many monarchies for centuries but the romantic triangle at the heart of this splendid Danish historical drama gives a fresh twist to an old trope.

"Mikkelsen keeps his brawny masculinity in check in a superbly pitched, understated performance."

In A Royal Affair, there is far more warmth and affection between the barking mad ruler and his personal physician and confidante, who is his wife’s lover, than between King and Queen.

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel and scripted by Rasmus Heisterberg (the duo who collaborated on the screenplay of the first and best of the Stieg Larsson adaptations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), it’s a captivating, handsomely mounted and richly detailed tale of betrayal, political intrigue and doomed love set in the 18th Century.

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is a knock-out as the English-raised Caroline Mathilde, who as a teenager is packed off to Copenhagen to marry her cousin, King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard).

Her fantasies of a fairy-tale life quickly turn sour as her imbecilic husband cruelly mocks and humiliates her and shows more ardour to his dog than to his bride. Nonetheless, she does her duty in the marital boudoir long enough to fall pregnant and bear him a son, the future King Frederick VI, and then rebuffs Christian’s attentions. So when handsome German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is hired to minister to the unstable King, Caroline is soon susceptible to his charms.

Touring through Europe, Struensee and Christian form a bond almost immediately as they amusingly exchange Shakespearian quotes and the doctor becomes akin to a playmate as they visit brothels and horse around. But as a fellow of the Enlightenment, abetted by the like-minded Caroline, Struensee shrewdly uses his influence to persuade the King to enact revolutionary reforms.

Censorship, torture and corporal punishment are abolished, free speech is guaranteed and universal access to education is provided. Such liberating measures earn Struensee and his mistress powerful enemies including Christian’s stepmother, the dowager Queen Juliane Marie (an icy Trine Dyrholm), the King's scheming, manipulative tutor Guldberg (David Dencik), and among the nobility, church and army.

A pivotal figure is the nobleman Rantzau (Thomas Gabrielsson) whose conflicted loyalties play a major part in determining the destinies of Struensee and Caroline.

The narration by Caroline is the form of a heartfelt letter written to her children in 1775, lamenting that 'you do not know me"¦ I will never see you again," and gives a strong sense of foreboding and Arcel skilfully cranks up the tension in the final two reels.

Mikkelsen keeps his brawny masculinity in check in a superbly pitched, understated performance, only rarely showing flashes of anger and distress as Johann realises his fate has been sealed. He eloquently conveys the sense of a man who’s caught between his idealistic desire to effect change, his love for Caroline and his regard and sympathy for Christian.

The camera loves the luminous Vikander, capturing every nuance as she runs the gamut from stoic to courageous defiance, tenderness, joy and sorrow, although she and Mikkelsen are given limited screen time together as clandestine lovers.

In his feature film debut, Følsgaard is wonderful as Christian, a complex individual with parallels to Tom Hulce's Amadeus. The young actor’s performance artfully implies that beneath his self-indulgent tantrums, whims and childish games the monarch is more cunning and self-aware than he seems.

Rasmus Videnaek’s cinematography deftly uses light and shade to underscore the shifting moods and takes full advantage of Niels Sejer’s handsome production design and Manon Rasmussen’s gorgeous costumes. The score by Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort is distinctive and memorable, a welcome change from the overblown mush which too often orchestrates historical dramas.



Watch 'A Royal Affair'

Saturday 25 September, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 27 September, 2:15am & 11:55am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Sweden, 2012
Genre: Drama, History, Romance
Language: Danish, French, German
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Trine Dyrholm, Alicia Vikander


2 hours 18 min
In Cinemas 21 June 2012,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20