Unexpected as many of the award-winners at Sunday night's Bafta ceremony were, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair was not so much as nominated for the Best Foreign Language Bafta. It's one I watched recently on LoveFilm, not having managed to see it at the cinema while it was out. Such is the way with foreign language films...
A Royal Affair tells the true story of how a German doctor, Johann Struensee, became the effective ruler of Denmark between 1769 and 1772 after being appointed personal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII. Watching the film, it seemed to be telling such an incredible and important story, that I was amazed I'd never heard about it before - was amazed that so few people internationally seem to know about it. I only hope this period of history is taught to Danish kids at school. During his time as de facto ruler, Struensee introduced all kinds of new laws and reforms, including the abolition of torture, slavery, censorship, etiquette rules at Court and several noble privileges, as well as the criminalization of bribery, the assignment of farmland to peasants, the introduction of taxes on gambling and reforms in universities and medical institutions. I learned loads from this film - not only about Danish political history, but even about medical advances - apparently, Struensee introduced smallpox innoculations to Denmark. I'd had no idea that successful vaccinations were carried out so early.
It wasn't just educational though: this is a brilliantly exciting and suspenseful film. It begins slowly, with Queen Caroline leaving England for Denmark and coming to terms with her new life and her unstable husband. Straight away, we're given an interesting perspective: the story is told in hindsight by Caroline herself, in the form of a letter to her children, which attempts to explain and justify the actions that have led to her banishment. Caroline is shown to be artistic and intelligent, frustrated and stifled by life at the Danish Court. Almost as soon as she arrives, she asks for her books, only to discover that half of them are being returned to England since they have been banned in Denmark. In focusing on Caroline, the film is able to explore how social structures confine and constrain people in different ways - not only do we get to see how the King is rendered impotent by his greedy and powerful council of nobles, and how the middle and lower classes are put down and despised by the aristocracy, but also how women are treated at Court, forced into unhappy marriages and publicly vilified for seeking any kind of love or affection.
Tension rises once Doctor Struensee arrives at Court. Initially disliked by the queen for apparently encouraging her sick husband's foolishness, the two soon discover kindred feelings. Both are great readers and thinkers, have a thirst for change and reform, and share a desire to help the country's unfortunate poor. Eventually, they become lovers. Meanwhile, Struensee encourages the passive and childish King Christian to excersise more power over his Court and Council. Under his instruction, Christian proposes many reforms at Council meetings, some of them his own ideas, others fed to him by Struensee and his wife. As his proposals are repeatedly turned down, however, Christian becomes increasingly frustrated. The council's decision to banish his overreaching friend Struensee is the final straw: in a shock moment, the King decides to dissolve the entire Council and make Struensee his sole advisor, subsequently handing over power by allowing Struensee to sign political bills for him.
From this point onwards, the sense of peril and feeling of what is at stake only builds, both on personal and political fronts. Naturally, the Danish aristocracy hate Struensee, and band together to plot his death. To make matters worse, Struensee turns the armed forces against him by cutting the military budget in order to carry out his reforms elsewhere. Things really begin to look bad when Queen Caroline becomes pregnant, and the likelihood of this baby's being fathered by the King seems to the rest of the country to be slim at best. The press ever loving a scandal, Struensee's anti-censorship law becomes a rod for his own back, with all kinds of pamphlets and caricatures printed detailing his affair with the Queen. One of the things that struck me most about the design of this film was these documents. They looked fantastically convincing, and I'd be really curious to know whether they were original or copied from source papers.
Amazingly, although things don't end well for Struensee himself, the film still manages to provide us with a happy ending of sorts - or at least to end on a note of hope: Caroline's letter to her children apparently works, since we are told that the young Frederick went on to reinstate most of Struensee's laws, even after they were revoked by the Council. I can't find out anything about whether such a letter actually existed or not. From what I've read, it seems as though Caroline's communication with anyone in Denmark was limited after her banishment, and that this was probably just a device invented by the film-makers. If this is the case, however, one is left wondering how on earth the children managed to avoid being poisoned by the rest of the aristocracy. Whatever the case in historical fact, it's certainly true that one of the most wonderful things about this story is that Struensee did not act in vain, but actually left a legacy and altered the course of Danish history. Had he been alive to see what happened next, I'm sure he'd have been proud.
A Royal Affair is a very beautiful film, wonderfully designed and artistically shot. It's also intensely moving, with fantastic performances given all round. It manages to foster sympathy even with initially dislikable characters such as the King, showing us his childlike helplessness and reinforcing this through his insistence upon calling his wife "Mother". The moment when we feel most for him is shortly after Caroline has persuaded the King to come back to her bed and tricked him into believing that her unborn child is his. As soon as she has done what she needs to, however, she tells him that she thinks he ought to start sleeping in his own room again. In response, the Christian tenderly protests that he enjoys being with his wife and child, even if they cannot "be intimate" together: even after we've seen his brutality towards her, and all his going about with whores, it's still absolutely heart-wrenching. In many ways, the film rather reminded me of The King's Speech. The essence of the story is strikingly similar: the system of monarchy has thrown up an ineffective ruler who has no desire for power and would happily hand over authority to someone more capable if only he could. He appoints a doctor to help him with his problems, whose influence over him is then inevitably resented by those with a greater sense of entitlement. One might describe A Royal Affair as basically The King's Speech with consequences: what happened to Johann and Christian, as opposed to what happened to Lionel and George, actually mattered. This is no feel-good film.
What's interesting about that particular comparison, though, is that it brings me right back to where I started. While The King's Speech won masses of Oscars and Baftas, and achieved more nominations for both than any other films, A Royal Affair failed to be nominated even for a single one. And, quite simply, it's a better film, if primarily by virtue of having a more interesting tale to tell. But isn't that, after all, what making a great film comes down to? Unfortunately, the latter happened to be a film "in foreign" (as Mark Kermode would have it), and this will always sorely affect international success. Even those handful of films that do manage to achieve some international recognition (Let the Right One In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), are typically remade in English for stupid, English-speaking audiences (and sometimes get ruined in the process). Mads Mikkelsen, too, is a classic example of how few avenues for success there still are for non-English or American actors: he's made it big now, but only because he played a Bond villain. Yep, that's right: even now, foreigners still, by and large, have to play high profile baddies if they want to get noticed. Unless of course you're a woman, in which case it's generally sufficient to be a sex symbol.
Still, perhaps we shouldn't despair just yet. There was, after all, a lot of fuss about the pointlessness of the aforementioned remakes at the time, and Scandinavian crime drama does seem to be becoming increasingly popular over here, both in books and on the telly. So perhaps there is hope for the rest of the (and I can't stress this enough) utterly fabulous cast of A Royal Affair. The winds of change are always blowing....