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Historical romantic thriller A Royal Affair may be Oscar bait, but you'll likely get hooked



In the current remake of Anna Karenina, there's a splashy setpiece at a formal ball where two people fall in love on the dance floor under the withering gaze of their blueblood peers. A nearly identical situation occurs in this handsome Danish costume drama; it even features one of Anna's cast members, the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Here, the emphasis on touch, heat and chemistry ignites the material.

Perhaps more impressively, the source is nonfiction: the 18th century reign of Denmark's King Christian VII, here played as a debauched, whinnying ninny by Mikkel Boe Folsgaard. Driven to produce an heir, the young monarch takes as his bride the Welsh Princess Caroline (Vikander), who suffers as the braying ruler busies himself with whores and distractions. But he's as susceptible to good influences as bad, and the mad Christian falls under the counsel of Johann Friedrich Struensee, his German physician, an Enlightenment man who shrewdly gets the king to play-act as, and thus become, a reformist ruler.

The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, best known here as 007's tear-bleeding adversary in Casino Royale, plays Struensee: he's a commanding presence with a heavy-lidded insolence that suggests a Scandinavian Robert Mitchum — all to the good, as he and Vikander's book-starved queen bring out the erotic charge in intellectual ardor. As palace enemies plot the couple's doom and force them to turn to cold pragmatism, director/co-writer Nikolaj Arcel, who helped adapt the initial version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, anchors this epic of romantic intrigue and progressive idealism under siege in a convincingly tactile world of candlelit antechambers and rat-infested streets. (The MVP is cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek, who gives the interiors a Barry Lyndon gleam.) This is the kind of period piece laughed off as "Oscar bait" — perhaps the last movie this season you'd expect to bear the name of executive producer Lars von Trier — but it offers the sated satisfaction of finishing a well-told tale. (Opens Friday at The Belcourt.)

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