Enlightenment Now!

A Royal Affair **** (out of five)

This gorgeously mounted, exquisitely acted slice of Danish history is, in this age of political polarisation, strangely and depressingly topical. The forces of progressive change, including modern social reform for the underprivileged, come into direct opposition with the ruling classes, who, in collusion with their friend The Church, do everything in their power – including seriously underhanded and illegal tactics – to maintain the status quo and crush the forces of change. Sound familiar?

The action actually takes place, mainly in Copenhagen, in the late eighteenth century. The forces of change are embodied in Johann Struensee (the great Mads Mikkelsen, who better play Christopher Walken’s long-lost Danish cousin in some crazy movie sometime soon), a surgeon in a Danish colony within Germany who, through circumstances not at all of his own making, is rather suddenly offered the opportunity to become King Christian of Denmark’s personal physician, as those close to the King fear that he is losing his mind as he tours Europe for a year. By the time Christian arrives back in the Royal seat of Copenhagen, Johann has become his buddy, right-hand man and confidante. When Johann discovers that Christian’s English wife, Queen Caroline, is a free-thinker like himself, a mutual attraction develops, as well as their combined realisation that, given Christian’s faith in Johann, he can be convinced to rise to his Kingly status and bring Denmark into line with the Enlightenment.

I was certainly enlightened by the history on show here, which encompasses a Royal Tale of intrigue, passion, lust, madness and treachery to rival anything out of Shakespeare (indeed, it’s a lovely touch, whether true or not, that Christian has a passion for Hamlet, being a Danish King and all). Denmark is obviously a socially progressive modern country, and it is fascinating to see the roots of that embodied in one man – who essentially gained monumental national influence by a total twist of fate, even an act of pure chance. Johann didn’t start out as a Martin Luther nor a Martin Luther King, obsessed with his own personal mission and destiny; before meeting the King, he wrote pamphlets, but he didn’t sign his name to them: he wasn’t a revolutionary. His opportunity was practically offered to him, and only then did he realise he could change his little corner of the world.

This is historical drama at its finest; the opulent production design is first-rate, the cinematography exquisite, and the casting perfect. Director Nikolaj Arcel acknowledges the flaws within all of his characters and his actors do too; we definitely know who the good guys are, but the good guys make some pretty heavy mistakes out of their own desires.

Danish cinema is currently enjoying a serious winning streak (and so is its television); long may it reign!

(Incidentally, Australian audiences will find particular resonance in the character of Queen Caroline, the beautiful foreigner who becomes Queen of Denmark, for obvious reasons).

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