As if Joe Wright wasn’t enough, the Danish, too, seem to have caught sumptuitis (sump-choo-eye-tis). Perhaps what keeps these films alive is the opportunity for critics to use otherwise largely defunct words like “sumptuous” and “lavish” to their heart’s content. And speaking of the heart, perhaps the other factor in the endless success of these period dramas is our willingness to surrender that most rhythmic of organs to the familiar manipulations of the simplest Harlequin-rulebook storytelling.
Because objectively, A Royal Affair is boring. But our eyes and our hearts tell us different.
It’s beautiful, yes, stunningly so, and the costumes are extravagant and the imagery is gorgeous. Though we might, in personal taste, rail against the excesses of 18th century court, we certainly have little trouble enjoying the abundant visual splendour of its recreation. We needn’t feel bad, after all – the 46 million Danish Krone of the film’s budget is a mere eight and a half million Canadian dollars, and, more importantly, the money isn’t spent wastefully on constantly fluctuating court fashion, but on telling us a story.
And what a story! A depressed Queen, emotionally and physically cloistered by her child-king of a husband, falls for the King’s Physician, a rugged, practical man of the Enlightenment replete with an endless capacity for smoldering looks and peeking chest hair. I poke fun, here, but all the somber mood and stunning photography in the world can’t hide a plot that demands a cleavage-laden paperback cover with a “50 cents” sticker.
There is the intimation of depth. As an Enlightenment thinker, the German Dr. Struensee waxes poetic on topics of individual freedom, state obligation, and, of course, why women should ride a horse astride rather than side-saddle. The brilliant Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is in typically fine form here, the embodiment of the tortured masculine do-gooder – a John Proctor in pantaloons. But he doesn’t offer us anything that the introduction to an Enlightenment history might not (except, again, the chest hair).
In fact, the film’s central question of the limits of power is never satisfactorily answered. As Struensee’s influence over the king, and with it his courtly power, grows, we’re faced with a classic objection to monarchy: what if someone else gains sway over the king? Even more provokingly, the film poses a second question: what if their vision is right? The viewer is assumed to side with Struensee as the sole forerunner of Danish enlightenment, even as his dismissal of the king and other opposing viewpoints begins to mirror the behaviour of the backwards, conservative court. Struensee’s inevitable end leaves us with little sense, though, of what we are to make of his exploits. The final intellectual message of the film seems to be this: Enlightenment ideas are good ideas. Indeed. Thank you.
If this sounds like a complete dismissal of the film, it is not. As fluffy romantic tragedy, murky political period piece, and, yes, sumptuous costume drama, A Royal Affair is no more or less than average. But there it ends. Affair is pretty, and little more.