11/12/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Reason Clashed With Faith and Love Didn't Conquer All: A Royal Affair


Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Tired of living in a country where faith-based politicians and pundits deny the validity of science and use the public's ignorance to stir up hate and sow dissension to keep people from asking why their overlords resist paying a fair share of taxes and instead empty the treasury to line their pockets? Who, when the public no longer falls for their ruses, use a sex scandal to make sure anyone who's on to their game and has the ability to offer a counter narrative is hounded out of office?

If so, you'd hate living in Denmark in the late 18th century, but you'll probably enjoy seeing the new film, A Royal Affair, by the writer for the original screen version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


Mikkel Folsgaard (the King) & Mads Mikkelsen (Struensee), courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Nikolaj Arcel's historical drama takes us inside the Danish palace where the court physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, played by Mads Mikkelsen, becomes swept up in the affairs of State as he attends to an increasingly schizophrenic King Christian VII who's surrounded by ministers and royal hangers-on who'd rather have an insane monarch they can manipulate than a populist voice of the enlightenment who'll undermine their power and decrease their earnings. A battle royale ensues and Struensee finds an ally in the young Queen Caroline Mathilda (the English-born daughter of the Prince of Wales), played by Alicia Vikander, who shares the doctor's idealism and eventually shares her bed with him.

As one thing leads to another, it becomes clear to the Dowager Queen that her son has completely lost his marbles and that, if she doesn't act, her daughter-in-law and the young woman's lover will be running the show. Stern measures need to be taken.

The director worried that, "a Danish period piece with subtitles wouldn't travel outside of Denmark," he said at press briefing last week. "But I find Americans really get the themes."

I spoke with Arcel just before the presidential election and admitted that I could see the enfeebled King as a stand-in for a recent befuddled American president who was surrounded by plotters who used his mentally challenged state and unholy alliances with the Church to lead the country astray as they pocketed an ever greater share of the country's wealth. Their disdain for reason, science, education and uncaring attitude toward the poor was matched only by their greed. Of course, anyone who could poke a hole in their false piety and rouse the rabble was a threat. While our current president recently trounced his contemporary royalist plotters, deceivers, discontented billionaires and their judicial handmaidens, Struensee wasn't so lucky. More than his political career dies when the public turns against him.

"They should have supported him but all they cared about was that he'd had an affair with the Queen," said Arcel.

The film isn't an attack on religion. "Faith isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when we use it to control people it's a bad thing," said Arcel.

To Arcel this story shows us, "how difficult it is to make changes."

In Denmark's case, the change had to wait for a generational shift to occur when the deranged King's son takes the throne and implements the reforms advocated by his exiled mother and her lover. While the film adheres closely to the historical record, it ends before we see that in real life these reforms were tested and fought over for generations. But they've finally taken root.

"Most Europeans are not faith-based," he said. "None cite God when campaigning and never discuss abortion."

Arcel had been watching the U.S. presidential elections with great interest and contrasted the spectrum of political rhetoric with that of today's Danish politicians.

In Denmark, "People accept science," he said.

It took one hundred years for the enlightenment and science to dislodge faith-based politics and for Europe to embrace reason but, as Arcel points out, "it's always going to be a constant struggle, but if it goes bad it will come back around."

This finely acted and engaging historical piece is shot with a contemporary sensibility that resonates today.

A Royal Affair opened in New York, Los Angeles and select cities 11/9/2012 and will continue to roll out across the country starting 11/16/12. It runs 138 minutes is Rated R and shown in Danish with subtitles.

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