11/09/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Movie Review: A Royal Affair

Enlightenment, as we learned this week, is a two-way street. Or, as Dorothy Parker once said, you can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.

Lest you think that we are living in a unique period in history -- with half the country believing in angels but not in man-made climate change -- it was ever thus. That's one of the takeaways from Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair, opening today in limited release, a lush romantic drama set in 18th-century Denmark.

Our guide to this seemingly benighted time is Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a Welsh noblewoman who is a distant cousin of the Danish king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). She is chosen to be his bride and queen, arriving in Copenhagen to discover that he's a fatuous dandy (who may have actual mental problems), uninterested in performing his husbandly duties because he's too busy shagging courtesans. "It's unfashionable to love one's wife," he sniffs.

Still, his advisers -- who mostly come from the church -- suggest strongly that he have it off with Caroline in order to produce an heir. But that's about it. So she's ripe for companionship when a German doctor, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), turns up at court, the friend of one of the king's nobles. He befriends both king and queen, flattering the king and reminding him that, in fact, he runs the country, not his determinedly anti-science-and-enlightenment council or his mother, the dowager queen.

The council runs the country, outvoting the king in meetings that leave Christian bored and frustrated with government. But Struensee points out that, well, he's the king -- so he can disband the council and make decisions himself.

He and the king become pals, playmates, co-conspirators in running the country. Struensee is decidedly progressive, aware of and happy to promulgate the ideas of the enlightenment that are sweeping other parts of Germany. Even as he becomes the king's most influential adviser, practically running the country himself, he's also falling for the queen -- and falling into her bed.

It is, briefly, the best of all possible worlds: Struensee and the king are dragging the country out of the Dark Ages, cleaning the sewers, reducing poverty, improving public health. But the disenfranchised members of the council don't take losing power lightly. The hell with the greater good, if the right people aren't in charge: Sound familiar?

Arcel keeps the melodrama to a minimum, without losing the drama. Mikkelsen plays Struensee as a pragmatic man who succumbs to romance, rather than passion. He genuinely falls for Catherine and her intelligence, as well as her beauty. Vikander plays Catherine as a bright woman caught in a world of dolts, who finds the one bright bulb in her circle. Folsgaard's Christian is an adult brat, easily led for good or ill.

A Royal Affair looks sumptuous and contains meaty, provocative ideas. It's a feast of a film, one that will send you scurrying for background on the real people behind this true story.

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