Tuesday, August 29, 2017

MM Movie Review: A Royal Affair

“A Royal Affair” (‘En kongelig affaere’) is a Danish historical film about the affair between Queen Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, consort of King Christian VII of Denmark, and the court physician Johann Friedrich Struensee. Released in 2012, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Struensee, Alicia Vikander as Queen Caroline and Mikkel Folsgaard as the King of Denmark. I am not expert enough on the details of Danish history to know how precisely accurate the film is but I can at least say it is broadly so. King Christian VII was considered mentally ill, he did have a court physician named Struensee who had an affair with his wife and during this period there was a huge amount of changes undertaken by the Danish Crown which ultimately resulted, as shown in the film, in a rather unhappy end for the Queen and the doctor. Given what an unusual historical character Queen Caroline was, I am rather surprised the film did not portray her as more ‘over the top’ and was, frankly, surprised by the amount of restraint and even fairness presented in the film.

The English princess
The entire story is told in flashback, Queen Caroline, in circumstances not made known until the end, writing a letter to her children to explain what happened during her time in Copenhagen from her own point of view. She relates being plucked from a seemingly idyllic childhood in England to be married off in 1766 to King Christian VII of Denmark who, we are assured from the outset, is barking mad. As is usually the case in such circumstances, I have my doubts about this, though there is certainly no denying the fact that he was not entirely sound. However, I have a hard time taking diagnoses of mental illness (about which even today we know practically nothing) from people who think that, as was said of King Christian, insanity can be caused by masturbation. The King seems at least interested in her, they have a romp and an heir to the throne is soon on the way, though the Queen cannot relate to her bizarre husband, nor he to her and he soon neglects her, spending his time elsewhere. This is all intended to build up the first half of the ‘royal affair’, that of the liberal minded, neglected young queen, forced into an unwanted and loveless marriage with a lunatic.

It is at this point that we are introduced to Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee and, I should add, also from the very beginning, we are made aware that the Kingdom of Denmark is, at this point, still a feudal, absolute monarchy, lagging behind the times in “Enlightened” Eighteenth Century Western Europe. The Queen, at the time of her marriage, is told that her ‘Enlightenment’ books are not allowed in Denmark which is resolutely sticking to tradition. However, Dr. Struensee is also a devotee of Rousseau and the ‘Enlightenment’. A German, from the Danish possessions in northern Germany, he is portrayed as a progressive man of, if not low origins, at least perfectly comfortable with the common, crude and even vulgar. He does a man with connections a medical favor, this is returned by his being recommended to court and he soon finds himself appointed as the King’s personal physician. Whether it is whoring or bizarre conversation, he goes along with the King, seems to understand him and the King becomes very attached to him, no doubt because he is the only one who does understand him, probably because he is the only one who has taken the time to actually try.

The King and his doctor
Dr. Struensee begins winning the King over to his more liberal ideas and the King gives the doctor a seat on his Privy Council. However, Struensee finds that his views are always overruled, though he is careful that these are put forward by the King. Struensee then begins working on the King, having come to understand him, he is able to put things in a way that the King will respond. He convinces the King to act normally by presenting it to him as a game, a sort of joke, as the King does understand pretending or acting in a play. He works on the King to pretend as though he is acting in a play when he meets his ministers and, as such, is able to have the King behave in a more kingly fashion and his ministers must obey him. Once this formula is worked out, the King begins unleashing a flood of liberal reforms on Denmark, all secretly originating from Dr. Struensee. His part in this, however, cannot remain secret and it is soon known that he is the one behind all of these dramatic changes which many in the aristocracy and Royal Family oppose.

Someone who does not oppose it is the Queen who, with all of these changes underway, sees that she and Struensee hold much the same pro-Enlightenment political opinions. The two soon begin an affair and Struensee seems on top of the world, or at least Denmark and what else really matters? The King is his friend and is basically allowing him to rule the country, he is committing vigorous adultery with the beautiful, young queen and he is re-making Denmark according to the ‘Enlightenment’ principles he most believes in. Everything is going his way. Then, the Queen informs him that she is pregnant. Uh-oh. It then becomes a matter of dire necessity to get the King back in bed with his wife very quickly in order to provide some plausible deniability for anyone else being the father. I do not like these, “the prince/king is not really the father” tropes in film but, unlike “Braveheart”, this one actually has historical merit. We cannot say for sure who the father of the child was, a girl born in 1771, but courtiers did say the child looked like Struensee and even in the King, with his supposedly limited mental capacity, had his doubts.

The King & Queen of Denmark
Nonetheless, the King appoints Struensee to the highest position at court to the extent that any order which comes from him must be enforced as if it came from the King personally. Struensee begins issuing a flood of “reforms”, more than ever, in actual history what works out to three a day and, I must give the film some credit on this score. Even for those who thought some of these changes were beneficial, they were too much, too fast. In a way that, frankly, surprised me, the film actually acknowledges that this torrent of liberal changes does not really work out well. It is made clear that Struensee has not taken the time to think things through, just ordering what to him seems “reasonable” while taking no account of how practical any of these changes are. He upsets the elites and, again, I am surprised the film was honest enough to show this, even upsets common people who he thinks he is benefiting. Moreover, by abolishing the censorship laws, these people are able to ridicule the King in whose name all of this is being done. Struensee gave the public the tools to attack him with.

All of this scrutiny finally allows the Dowager Queen Juliana, mother of the King’s younger half-brother Prince Frederick, to learn of the affair between the Queen and Dr. Struensee. The tension shown was historically accurate. The King never got on with his step-mother, the Queen never liked her and she did have a history of trying to keep the King isolated. She was never very popular in Denmark and no doubt looked forward to having more influence by replacing the unsound King with her own son. The Dowager Queen and a powerful official work together to arrange a palace coup, meanwhile the public has been worked up into a howling mob as not only have the horde of liberal reforms upset their lives but now they learn the King is being manipulated by a German who is ‘playing doctor’ with the Queen.

The downfall of Struensee
Nonetheless, the King is portrayed as a basically good man who simply has an affliction of the mind but he sees the mob howling for blood and refuses to turn over Struensee to them, the man who has been his only real friend, the only one who had any understanding of him at all. However, aside from having the affair confirmed, the King is told that the Queen and Struensee are plotting to murder him and take control of his kingdom themselves. This, the King cannot allow and he orders the execution of Struensee and the exile of his Queen. However, he still does not really want Struensee to be killed and issues an order pardoning him. However, the pardon is suppressed by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg who is set to take over the country in place of Struensee and the doctor is executed. The liberal reforms were overturned, though not much mention is made of it, this is done under the regency of the King’s half-brother Frederick. The film ends with the Queen finishing her letter to her children shortly before her own death in Hanover. The children receive the letter and, we are told, when he came to the throne, King Frederick VI reissued most of the Struensee reforms and Denmark was all happy, free and “enlightened”.

That was, of course, a fitting way to end such a film but anyone who knows anything about the actual history of the Danish monarchy in this period will know that they lie by omission. Yes, King Frederick VI did issue many similar liberal reforms but then he also led Denmark to a fairly disastrous involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, the result of which was to see Denmark lose Norway to Sweden and afterwards, seeing the woeful state of his country, Frederick VI reversed course, abandoning his earlier liberalism and becoming a full-throated reactionary. It is an historical record that makes it rather difficult for the so-called “reformers” that every time their ideas were put into practice, disaster was the result. In any event, I have low expectations when it comes to the ‘messaging’ of most royal-subject films and I think “A Royal Affair” can be forgiven this effort at implying an altogether happy ending. I say that, however, only because I had expected worse and was pleasantly surprised.

Mother and child at the mercy of step-mother-in-law
“A Royal Affair” is, I think, overall a pretty good movie. For the sake of people in Kansas, I will say, it is not for children (which I would think should be obvious but…) as there is some crude language, brief nudity and what I suppose would be termed “sexual situations”, though those mostly alluded to rather than seen. Overall, it seems a fairly accurate film to me, though, while I am no expert, some things did bother me somewhat given what I do know on the subject. For example, it seemed to me that Queen Caroline was portrayed as being far too helpless, as if she were little more than a prisoner from start to finish when, in reality, she had her own faction at court, as was usual in such cases, and was far from being isolated and powerless. In any event, I was impressed with how the King, while certainly portrayed as being insane, was not portrayed as an inherently bad person but a basically good man who has an affliction which makes me unable to relate to ordinary people or for them to relate to him. I was also, again, surprised and impressed that they were honest enough to show that the Struensee reforms did not instantly make a paradise on earth but actually made things worse and sparked a backlash, not just from the aristocrats but from ordinary people.

It is certainly a well made film, well acted, it won a large number of awards and great amount of critical acclaim. It looks very good and it covers, fairly accurately I thought, a critical period in Danish history. If it prompts people to learn more, I think that alone would make it worth recommending. Personally, I am glad to see any such films from the Kingdom of Denmark and wish there was more available on Danish royal history in various language (such as English) for a wider audience. Denmark has the oldest monarchy in the western world and there is much there to enthrall and educate, I wish more people could learn about it, myself included. Anyway, bottom line, I would say it is a pretty good film, not perfect but better in some ways than I expected and I would like to see more, preferably next time about a Danish monarch who was successful and not insane.

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