Magnolia Pictures // 2012 // 137 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 2nd, 2013
Their love affair would divide a nation.
William Gibson has suggested that sometimes it can be more difficult to imagine the past than it is to imagine the future. The era before the so-called Enlightenment is one of those times that's most difficult to imagine. Part of the reason is that we take so many Enlightenment ideals -- the importance of the individual, freedom, responsibility, etc. -- for granted. Like the fish doesn't notice water, we hardly can imagine life without these ideas. It's also difficult to imagine this era because precisely because these ideas are so obvious to us, and it leads us to ignore the fact that many of the Enlightenment's ideas weren't so easy to assimilate: the Marquis de Sade is as much a product of that soup of ideas as Thomas Jefferson. A Royal Affair gives us a peek at one of the bastions of early Enlightenment idealism, emphasizing both the idealism and transgression of the emerging ideas by foreground a royal love triangle. It's a sumptuous display with plenty to say, and A Royal Affair (Blu-ray) will help it get the audience it deserves.
The sister of King George III (Mad King George, sadly), Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina) is betrothed to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, the seventeen-year-old royal who's infantile and unbalanced. He's adolescent in his tastes, only wants a wife to produce an heir, and quickly absconds on a tour of Europe to avoid spending too much time with his new bride. Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen, Clash of the Titans) is charged with accompanying the king, providing him with a tutor and guide. Eventually, Caroline learns of Johann's progressive side, and the two plot to change Denmark's government to one that provides orphanages and doesn't censor its citizens, even while their love seems to get in the way.
The problem with most historical dramas is that they favor one or the other side of their generic equation. Some are all history; they provide lots of relevant details, locations, and stories about the way in which history happened but give viewers no compelling characters to latch on to. This makes them feel empty and dull. On the other side, too many historical dramas are all drama and no history. In these case the story becomes all about a handful of characters, and the historical circumstances are a convenient backdrop that gives filmmakers an excuse for lush sets and costume.
A Royal Affair balances these two aspects and, more importantly, makes the connections between them clear. This is not just another love-triangle romance, nor just another moment in which social reform is enacted. No, the relationship between Caroline and Stuensee seems in some important way to only be possible with the heady swirl of the Enlightenment around them, and the social reforms they advocate for are similarly only possible because of their tangled romantic relationship. A Royal Affair does a fantastic job navigating between these two aspects of the story, not letting one or the other be obscured for too long.
Of course, as befits a solid historical drama, A Royal Affair uses sumptuous costumes and solid acting to its benefit. Shot in Prague with wonderful costume design the film effortlessly conjures a period atmosphere. The trio of leads are also excellent. Mads Mikkelsen has been appearing in a handful of American films in the last decade or so and this is probably the way that most viewers are going to see him in a foreign context for the first time. In contrast, this is Følsgaard's first feature, and he acquits himself well as the juvenile king. Vikander has to bear the affections (or not) of both men, and she holds up well under the dual demands of character and costume.
The film is also helped by this excellent Blu-ray release. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is strong, providing an accurate rendition of the 35mm source. Detail isn't always as strong as it could be, as the filmmakers have opted for a slightly soft look to help create a period look. However, that look is well rendered here, with appropriate grain and no digital artefacting to be found. Black levels are consistent and deep, and color saturation is spot-on. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround track is slightly less impressive, but only because this is an historical drama. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds get a bit of a workout with the score. It's an impressive track for the film, even if it's not as dynamic as an action flick. English subtitles are included for the Danish audio.
Extras start with a trio of interviews with the film's stars from the Berlin International Film Festival. They chat about production and their roles, providing some background. Two text-based features give us biographies of the historical players and a genealogy of the ties between the British and Danish royal families since the film's setting. The film's trailer is also included.
Obviously, viewers will have to have a taste for foreign historical costume dramas to give A Royal Affair a chance. Fans could also wish for a few more extras as well.
A Royal Affair is an above-average historical drama that should produce even more work for everyone involved. There's love, politics, and gorgeous costumes and scenery aplenty. The strong audiovisual presentation makes this disc easy to recommend for a rental for the set design alone.
Since it leaves viewers Enlightened, A Royal Affair is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R