In the mood for a tale of passion and tumult in 18th-century Denmark? A new film, A Royal Affair, might be your ticket. It's concerned with recreating a few chaotic years in the Danish monarchy, when the young king, Christian VII, who was either an imbecile or psychotic, enters into an arranged marriage with an English princess named Caroline Mathilde, the sister of England's George III. The marriage is a travesty as the king, apparently a compulsive masturbator, has neither the erotic interest nor the free will to serve as an effective husband or ruler.
Enter Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee. He's German, he's radical, he's proto-feminist, he's an atheist, he's a man of science and the Enlightenment and, in the form of Mads Mikkelsen, he's a total stud. Of course he ends up in the arms of the young, neglected queen (Alicia Vikander).
The first half of the film is romance novel stuff, with gorgeous lead actors and rapturous castle porn. For those who want to know why they're watching random Scandinavian royals in this period piece, the answers become clearer as the political machinations begin to turn. The doctor, winning the trust of the hapless king (a very good Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), becomes the power behind the throne, ordering such reforms as universal smallpox inoculation and the end to torture and censorship.
It's interesting to spend some time on Wikipedia after seeing the film, to learn that the events occurred more or less as the film depicts them. The good German doctor was indeed something of a cross between Che Guevara (who was a physician) and Rasputin (who gained enormous influence in the court of the Romanovs thanks to his supposed ability to treat the hemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei). As for the poor young queen, she died at the age of 23 after eight years of marriage, but not before doing her duty by producing two living heirs. There's a happy postscript to this story, which we learn at the end, but none of this makes The Royal Affair much more than a coffee-table movie. Make that a paperback coffee-table movie.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shire and shite."