A Royal Affair of being more of the same damn thing, for that is exactly the effect it has as you're watching: Good Lord, surely not another lushly-appointed period piece about the torrid love lives of royalty saturated from head to toe with detailed recreations of buildings and clothing that leave one with the overall feeling that the 18th Century was an inexplicably clean place?
Yes, precisely, another one. Though anglophone moviegoers used to the royalty porn duly parceled out from Hollywood and Great Britain every autumn would not be primed to anticipate the odd swerve that A Royal Affair takes; for as is made clear at the very start in the form of a scene-setting title card, this isn't just a gossipy story of the secret lives of those in power hundreds of years ago, but a striking pro-rationalism movie about the glory days of the Enlightenment. Now, Antagony & Ecstasy is a firmly pro-Enlightenment space, and we thus have nothing to speak against the intentions of a film that proudly dramatises those days in full-on message picture mode, particularly since it leaves A Royal Affair with a much more idiosyncratic personality than e.g. The Duchess, or: Keira Knightley Wears All the Pretty Clothes. As for the film's execution of those intentions, well, that's what we're here to discuss. Because for all that the movie deserves credit for cheerleading social justice and favoring intellectual development over terror-stricken reactionary traditionalism, it's still basically just another lushly-appointed period piece that happens to boast some really solid performances. I am more than a little reminded of Agora from a couple of years ago; and it is never a cause for outright celebration to be reminded of Agora.
Not being a student of Danish politics in the latter half of the 18th Century, I cannot state with authority that A Royal Family is overly factual, though it seems to get all of the broad strokes right: Princess Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander), sister of King George III of Great Britain and Ireland was married to newly-crowned King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) in 1766, only learning afterward that the king was a man of dissolute habits, plagued by some manner of undiagnosed mental disorder. The marriage very quickly ceased to be even a little bit happy for either party.
In the summer of 1767, Christian was treated by German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who so impressed the mentally-weak royal that he immediately put Struensee in a position of significant authority as an adviser. Christian being at all times a rather feeble thinker, this gave Struensee an extraordinary degree of control over the fate of Denmark, and using his keen thoughts about how to better the lives of regular Danish citizens through increasingly humane and egalitarian laws, he was able to totally transform the country in a matter of months, taking one of the most backwards, tradition-bound nations in Europe and turning it into a model for Enlightenment governance. He also, sadly, started up an affair with Queen Caroline Mathilde, one that was not all that well-hidden, and when his combination of political overreach (angering the nobility) and sexual indiscretion (angering everybody) proved more than he could combat by means of his puppet king, his rule came to a swift end, and Denmark quickly retrenched to its more hidebound state.
This is the background of A Royal Affair more than it's the film's actual topic; in truth, writers Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel (the latter of whom also directs) seem a bit indecisive as to how much they want the film to be about reform politics, and how much they just want it to be about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde and Struensee, and this fundamental identity crisis does no favors at all to a movie that desperately needs more focus, not less, to its ornate period film dramatics. Arcel might be beatifying a radical reformer, but as a filmmaker he is wholly content to stick entirely with a very well-used playbook of picturesque filtered interior light and close-ups of people in starchy clothes looking pensive; and while at 137 minutes, A Royal Affair isn't unbelievably long for a genre that traffics in inflated running times as a matter of course, that's a lot of time to fill with a central romance that is as unpersuasive as this one is. It's hard to say where, precisely the fault lies, for it is in some combination of unfortunate elements: the writers, having made Caroline Mathilde the protagonist and audience surrogate, turn out not to have very keen ideas about what, if anything, should make her interesting, and she just kind of sits there, reacting passionately but vaguely to everything around her. Whether the way the character flops on the page hinders Vikander's performance, or if she's just a wet noodle is impossible for me to guess, though the effect is the same either way: the actress looks intense and empty at the same time, while sparking off little to no chemistry with Mikkelsen.
The movie is on much firmer ground when it sticks to the political gamesmanship between Struensee and the king, or between those two men and the horror-stricken traditionalists making up the king's council. This has much to do with how darn good the two actors are, with Følsgaard especially standing out for so effortlessly carrying of the film's chewiest and also most complex part: he has to make Christian a credible villain and creep, while also letting us into the king's confusion and terror such that we can feel genuinely sorry for him, and do it all without relying on obvious "this man is mentally disturbed" signifiers, implying Christian's disorder rather than launching into all-out awards bating histrionics. The tension between him and Mikkelsen is as electric as the romance between Mikkelsen and Vikander is limp, and whenever A Royal Affair truly sings, it is almost entirely due to that electricity.
Certainly, is not due very much to the sets and costumes, which look nice, and exactly like things we've all seen dozens or times, nor to the stretched-out plot, nor to the hand-holding about themes, though as an American with a barely functional concept of modern Danish politics, I'll admit that the hand-holding was more than slightly useful. If A Royal Affair manages to be above the curve for costume biopics, that is almost solely to the character dynamics at the center of its B-plot, and not to any particular energy in the filmmaking or elsewhere; it is, in truth, a bit of a dry movie, not quite exciting enough to hide the degree to which it's ultimately just a history lesson.