Pretty period piece

A Royal Affair, based on a true story, has substance.

Historical dramas have had a bad rap in recent years. Since the 1980s, when the Merchant Ivory brand became synonymous with politeness, safety and the sort of heritage industry beloved of conservatives, the ‘‘frock film’’ has become all too easy to dismiss.  so it comes as an agreeable surprise to see A Royal Affair, a drama based closely on real events in the Copenhagen court in the 18th century, emerging from Denmark with frocks, horses, castles and a lush romantic theme: a commoner’s illicit love for a queen.

The strength of A Royal Affair, however – as directed by Nikolaj Arcel – is that it is just as much a film about ideas. Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) and her king’s adviser, a German doctor called Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), are irresistibly drawn to each other because, alone among the dour functionaries of the Danish court, they are creatures of the Enlightenment. They swap banned books and, along with the mercurial, clever but cracked King Christian VII (Mikkel boe Folsgaard), plot to introduce universal education.

Arcel describes himself as ‘‘kind of a political guy’’ who sees Struensee as ‘‘a little like [Barack] Obama’’. but the characters, in all their familiar human weakness, were what attracted him most to the story, which is one all Danes know. ‘‘Struensee’s life would have been so much better if he hadn’t fallen in love with the queen and had a baby with her, but they couldn’t help it; they were passionate about eachother,’’ hesays.

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For Mikkelsen, Struensee is by no means an unblemished hero. ‘‘He is an idealist,’’ he says. His intentions as an adviser, certainly, are good. ‘‘and then, of course, like all good idealists, he goes somewhere that, from the beginning, he has hated. He becomes a dictator.’’ what disconcerted Mikkelsen more, when it came to interpreting Struensee, was an account he read of his appearance. ‘‘He was small, on the heavy side, with enormous calves,’’ he says, chuckling. ‘‘and she [the queen] was very big as well; so we had two people on the wrong side of 120kilos.’’ Mikkelsen is regularly voted the sexiest man in Denmark, and Vikander is young, slender and beautiful. clearly, even Danish realism has its limits.

A ROYAL AFFAIR GENRE  Period drama CRITICAL BUZZ Won two Bear awards at the Berlin film festival for best screenplay and best actor, which went to the relatively unknown Mikkel boe Folsgaard, for his jittery, sympathetic portrayal of the dissolute and intermittently mad King Christian – reflecting the popular two-thumbs-up consensus. ‘‘A gripping chapter of European history is recounted with elegance, intelligence and clarity,’’ the Hollywood Reporter’s Berlinale critic said. STARS Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel boe Folsgaard, AliciaVikander. DIRECTOR Nikolaj Arcel RATED M OPENS June 21

Pretty period piece

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