A Royal Affair, Review. The Danish Enlightenment.
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) is a Danish historical drama around one of the key moments of the Enlightenment. The film opens with a text describing Denmark as a feudal backwater. It is ruled by aristocrats and priests, hostile to all criticism and reform.
A young woman Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is taken from a life as a member of the English Royal family to marry her cousin the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark,. Her musical talents are scorned by her husband, and her books censored by the Court for unacceptable ideas. She is rapidly impregnated. A change comes when a provincial German physician Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is inveigled into the post of Royal physician by supporters of reform. He wittily charms – or humours – the King and soon has a strong hold over him.
Struensee, an admirer of Voltaire, has a bookcase full of forbidden literature. Caroline sees this and picks up a copy of The Social Contract and begin’s with Rousseau’s first line, “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains”.
The affair between Caroline and Struensee unfolds as the physician rises to political power.
Based on historical fact the film illustrates how Stuensee, and his supportrs’ project of promoting change through ‘Englihtened Despoistim’ worked in 18th century Denmark. In 1870 he became royal adviser (forelæser) then konferensråd on 5 May 1770 and “Maître des requêtes” on 18 December. He used this to promote basic sanitation in Copenhagen, create Foundling hospitals, abolished the Censorship, forbade Torture and stopped Capital punishment for theft, and introduced general Small Pox vaccination. During his period of power he made 1069 cabinet orders, around 3 a day. In the film he quickly gets out of his depth with problems raising the funds for these changes, and the way his own circle take advantage to enrich themselves.
Manipulating the King’s authority with the discrete backing from the Queen this aroused deep opposition. The Church is outraged at its loss of authority, the aristocrats at threats to free their serfs, and the army recoils at budget cuts. Taking advantage of the abolition of censorship pornographic pasquinades are circulated about he Queen’s love life. Struensee is attacked as a foreigner (not mentioned in the film is that he conducted state business in German).
The 18th month “Time of Struensee” came to an end during a Masquerade Ball (beautifully recreated) on the 8th of January 1772. An army-led mob seize him and his closest supporter. They are tortured, confess, and are publicly beheaded.
The film is set within the conventions of historical drama and with their limitations. The brittle rituals of the Court barely covering the King’s own maniacal debauchery are the backdrop to a doomed love affair between the Queen and a commoner.
But there is a lot more in the film. Enlightenment principles, however poorly and imperiously carried out, did not go away. Caroline and Struensse were trapped in their own chains, but their works remain. The ending notes that most of their reforms were brought back after their deaths.
Well worth viewing.