Saturday, March 02, 2013

Film Review: A Royal Affair dir. Nikolaj Arcel

Sumptuous, driven, ornate, opulent, gut-wrenching.

I actually took out a scrap of paper from my purse and wrote some of the words that catapulted to my mind's forefront as soon as the credits starting rolling.

This, fair reader friends, is why I love period pieces. They are so fascinating, I learn so much, they whet my appetite and I want to go on a research spree and excavate every little detail about the people I have seen come so vibrantly to life and the world that has fleshed out before my eyes in whirling canvas.

After watching A Royal Affair I added Copenhagen ( "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen"-there. now it's in your head, too)  to one of the places I really must visit

We often associate grand period pieces of the 18th Century with the British and French monarchies; but we don't as often read or watch the palatial life in other parts of Europe, such as Denmark, unfurl.

This is a work of visual opulence, yes, but also one of romance and power play.

Caroline Mathilde of England is betrothed to King Christian VII of Denmark.  She dreams in the opening sequences of how theatrical and artistic he is as hearsay has taught her. She lifts her locket from her neck and stares at the tiny portrait of him painted inside.  When she meets him and they consummate their marriage, she realizes that he is jealous, changeable, temperamental and mentally unbalanced. If his critics and council are right, this is one mad King.

Having fulfilled her duty by providing him with a male heir, Caroline is certain that her life from there on in is a hopeless imprisonment.  The king stifles her artistry (she is a fabulous pianist) so that she doesn't upstage him and the censorship is so great in a Denmark stagnantly opposed to Enlightenment theories, that the books she had transported from England have been sent back.  The king much prefers the company of prostitutes and ribald activities in the evening, leaving the Queen to her bedchambers: trapped in a loveless and passionless existence, though the cogs of her fast-moving, philosophical and Romantic brain are forever turning.

While the King is on a two year European tour, he meets with Johann Struensee, a small-town physician he is taken with during an interview wherein they have a battle of Shakespearian quotes. Struensee is the perfect foil of the eccentric and flamboyant king and he welcomes him to not only be his personal physician, but also his constant companion and confidante.  This does well for Struensee, who was encouraged to try for the post by two men desperate to get back into court life.

When he meets the Queen, she seems as pale and lifeless as the King has described her. Her spirits are low and she views Struensee as another one of her mad husband's whims, destined to bring the king further and further into debauchery.  During a check up, the Queen discovers that behind his medical treatises, the new physician has rows of her favourite Enlightenment works by Rousseau and Voltaire. She immediately sees him a kindred spirit and they bond. Very slowly, very subtly. Their relationship merges further when Struensee presents her a packet of the philosophical works he has written anonymously.  When their relationship transitions from one of mental equality to physical passion, the viewer is more delighted because  a preternatural kinship and solid friendship has already been established.

This is a familiar story and a familiar trope: not only in fiction but in real life.  Forbidden love, power-plays, a double-standard which allows the husband to carry out extra-marital affairs while condemning the wife and a slow-boiling tension made tantamount by members of court who, for reasons of politics and self-protection and advancement need someone to act as scapegoat, need a downfall.

While Struensee has the king's ear, he acts as a royal advisor to the extreme: they dissolve the council and implement a myriad of wonderful decrees inspired mostly by Struensee's personal philosophies and his conversations with the Queen who, like him, would like to see censorship banned and serfdom obliterated with rights for the peasants.

Of course it falls apart. Of course there is tragedy.  History doesn't do well at providing us case after case of happily ever afters. But, like the best films and stories of the sort, while you are in the elegant and refined and supremely passionate midst of the love affair unfolding, you believe that it could go on forever... that it must go on forever... that Enlightenment and romance will prevail.

I knew it was coming, I bit my nails to the quick and wrung my hands ( seriously. goodbye manicure) but I didn't want to see it as it happened. I wanted to freeze a few beautiful and bold, gilt-edged moments in time.


Aarti said...

Wow, this sounds right up my alley and I am a little stunned that I've never heard of it before. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Unknown said...

I am SO happy you finally got to see this film and loved it as much I did!! :)