In 1766, the well-read, 15-year-old Princess Caroline Matilda of Wales (Alicia Vikander) is married off to her cousin, the 17-year-old newly crowned King of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). She’s sweet and willing, he’s been psychologically manipulated and debauched by cynical court regents–if he lived today, his sex tape with Kim Kardashian would be legend. The Fun King, a brutal, cretinous creation of inbreeding and indulgence, is also a probable schizophrenic.
Despite a nightmarish wedding night, Caroline gives the king a son. Her duty discharged, she is ignored and worse, isolated. As the king whores his way through Europe, his illness progresses.
Dr. Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen, the James Bond villain Le Cyphre), a physician renowned for his modern (aka improperly Enlightened) skill, is severe but not unamusing, with a deadpan wit that serves him well. When the king quotes Hamlet and the doctor answers it right back, a bromance is born. And for the first time, we glimpse a man beneath the king, a lonely and anguished soul.
Soon the physician is the only man who can reason with the king, by speaking his language of unreason. Such closeness places him in an increasingly intimate position–at times taking part in semi-public sexual revels with the Great Dane. But the true peril arrives when the king asks him to attend to his neglected bride, saying, “I want a fun queen.” We know what happens next.
Where this haunting, shocking film surprises is in how the love triangle develops into a painful, fumbling attempt by the three principals to lift Denmark out of the Middle Ages. Though emotionally at odds, their minds are open to the spirit of the Enlightenment. The story, a true one, lives on in today’s progressive Denmark and gives us reason to hope for those dreams we can’t realize in the here and now.
In a culture obsessed with Downton Abbey, A Royal Affair gives a more honest and bracing look at aristocracy. It starts off with the familiar girls’ fantasy of being singled out and selected to be a queen. It ends in torture and–well, princesses, then and now, can lose their heads in more than one way.