A Royal Affair - Blu-ray Review

'there is a hole at the heart of it, an emptiness which, at times, can border on boredom'

At the crux of the final part of A Royal Affair is the relationship between Caroline (newly BAFTA-nominated Alicia Vikander) and Johann (Mads Mikkelsen) and how they use it to influence the political fortunes of Denmark by applying pressure to clearly mad King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). There's a difficult ethical question to consider here. Although Caroline and Johann clearly have good intentions they occasional waver morally and the only reason they are able to do anything at all is down to their very effective manipulation of a mentally ill man. It is endemic of the film as a whole that this potential point of interest, of vital moral greyness, is never addressed. Caroline and Johann are the heroic protagonists. Why look any deeper?

This dedication to surface level hosiery and character window dressing makes Nikolaj Arcel's film a very strange beast indeed. A Royal Affair is well shot and despite the fact that he is on autopilot, Mikkelsen heads an excellent cast well, restrained, certain and charming. But there is a hole at the heart of it, an emptiness which, at times, can border on boredom. Caroline takes far too long to spring in to any sort of action at all, deciding instead to pass her first third moping, learning or flash-backing. Despite the strong performances, the lead three get little Drama to perform, little chance to jump gung-ho into a script far too restrained for the topic.

All of which seems to suggest that A Royal Affair isn't worth bothering with at all, which is far from the truth. Actually, when the film pushes forwards with interesting ideas and technical certitude, something very good threatens to break out. The cinematography by Rasmus Videbæk is varied, dynamic and delightful, echoing tone and mood but also changing understanding of scenes. The present, from where Caroline tells her story, is pastel-shaded, the past more vivid, a sign of a better time. Arcel also manages to connect character and topic. We see Denmark grow up during the course of the film as it goes through its Enlightenment, whilst Caroline's arc clearly follows a fairly modern coming-of-age curvature. The scene where Caroline finally starts to wake-up - a sexually-charged horse ride with Johann, not as distressing as it sounds - brings together all that we know she could be from earlier hints of her free-spirit; banned books, flower collecting, independent thought.

But Arcel keeps this hidden and resorts to safety in formula for too-long stretches. The script is full of annoyingly mundane examples of wink-wink double-speak ('I'm not very good at masquerades', says Mikkelsen at one point, in the middle of a masked ball) and predictable character progressions. Note Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's David Dencik, stuck with a horrible one-dimensional antagonist. In one scene we see him looking sly and suspicious. The camera holds him for a little too long. Could something fundamental be about to happen regarding him? In the next scene it does.

The craft is present on several levels, but the inspiration? This is a film about The Enlightenment. It needed more of it.

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