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Friday, December 23, 2016

Nikolaj Arcel | En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair)


something rotten in denmark
by Douglas Messerli

Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg (screenplay, based on a book by Bodil Steensen-Leth), Nikolaj Arcel (director) En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair) / 2012

In 2009, in a conversation with Polish writer-director Zbigniew Kaminski, I was asked if I knew of any good new books which he might adapt for film production in Poland. Having just read Per Olav Enquist’s historical fiction, The Royal Physician’s Visit (see My Year 2001), I suggested that title and, if I remember correctly, even loaned him my copy of the book.
      He felt, evidently, since he felt the film would have to be shot in Denmark, it would be too expensive for his company. However, some film company did ultimately buy those rights, planning to make an English-language movie, but evidently had difficulty in getting funding.
      Meanwhile, Zentropa Entertainments, Danmarks Radio, and a consortium of other producers told the same story, this based on a work by Bodil Steensen-Leth, Prinsesse af blodet. Knowing  of the other project, the scriptwriters, Nikolaj Arcel (also its director) and Rasmus Heisterberg, worked hard with Enquist to discover what was documented and what were the fictional scenes that he had added in order to avoid any question of rights.

      The result, A Royal Affair (2012), is a resplendent tale of the beautiful Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (Alicia Vikander), her mad young husband, Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard), and Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), the royal physician with whom Matilda has an affair.
      With the royal court as its setting, the film is absolutely breathtakingly lovely to look at, and the plot is filled with court intrigue, particularly with the plotting of Ove Høegh-Guldberg (David Dencik) and the queen dowager, Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (Trinen Dyrholm). Yet Struensee is himself involved in an attempted takeover of the government, working with two former courtiers, Enevold Brandt (Cyron Bjørn Melville) and Schack Carl Rantzau (Thomas W. Gabrielsson).

      But the real center of this film is revealed early on as a momentary transition between the medievally-run country of 18th Denmark and its brief transformation into an enlightened nation, the fact of which led Voltaire himself to pen a letter to the King. And, in this sense, Struensee, a  reader of enlightenment writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, who manipulates his young royal charge to oppose of privy council—who actually rule the country with Christian offering merely his signature—and to pass radical changes for the good of the Danish people, including universal inoculation against smallpox, a clean-up of Copenhagen’s filthy streets, and other important changes, some 1,069 decrees in all.
      In Enquist’s version of the tale, Christian—whose major passions appear to be theater and whores—is perceived as quite literally mad; but here we are more uncertain about his mental instability, having to wonder whether, as the wise physician seems to suggest, if it isn’t simply a pose to free himself from the responsibilities of state. Struensee, who quickly befriends Christian, does just that, freeing the young king by rehearsing Christian’s daily new proposals and, ultimately, after doing away with the privy council, taking over the bill-signing himself.
       Although Matilda does have a son, Frederick, with Christian, mostly she is deserted, keep apart in an unfriendly world where even several of the books she has brought with her from England, are taken away, having been banned in Denmark. 
       Is it any wonder that, as the physician and she come together to discuss ideas, that she falls passionately in love with Struensee, becoming pregnant with his daughter, who later would be related to many of Europe’s royal families. Her daughter, Caroline Amalie, for example, would become Queen of Denmark.
       In a sense Mathilda, of whom Christian continually refers to as “mother,” and Struensee, who clearly plays the role of a loving and doting father, are almost destined to their own  spousal-like relationship, the later joining her in bed every night. And at moments, particularly when the troubled Christian falls into the arms of genial and clearly loving physician, it almost seems that the relationship between this trio is a kind of perverse ménage-a-trois, particularly when, discovering that she is pregnant with Struensee’s daughter, Mathilda is forced to encourage Christian to return to her bed as a ruse to hide the fact that her child is a bastard.
       When the queen dowager actually does perceive that Mathilda and Struensee are love, however, there is little hope Struensee can stay alive, even though Christian is quite ready to forgive him and stay his execution. But the privy council has returned to power, and the evil Høegh-Guldberg ignores Christian’s reprieve, beheading one of the few men of the country who had a truly good mind and caring constitution. 
       Mathilda is sent away, and her son Frederick eventually comes to power, an afternote letting us know that he later restored many of the reformations previously ordered by his father, as imagined by his physician.

       Although, many of the incidents presented in the movie are fictions, most of them by far occurred in history itself. And the only truly unbelievable aspect of this film is that the scenes  we are witnessing supposedly consist of a long epistle Mathilda is writing to explain her actions to her children. As several critics noted, had she actually written such a letter, it would surely have gotten into the hands of enemies, and would probably have resulted in the death of her daughter. In history, it is apparent, is that this unhappy young queen kept her silence in painful isolation, returning to England to become involved with charities.
       In the end, we might almost see this film as a presaging of the liberal, open-minded and economically successful country that Denmark is today. Perhaps the royalty, after years of inter-breeding, needs a good dose, now and then, of a county doctor of German peasant stock. If nothing else, Mathilda, brought an aura of what Christian describes as “the dramatic” into the oppressive Danish court. It’s too bad that film did not incorporate the fact that Mathilda, far from being the fragile beauty as she is here represented, often appeared in men’s clothing and appeared in formal occasions in riding breeches.

Los Angeles, December 23, 2016

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