I’ve always had a problem with costume dramas as a genre, and this is coming from someone who otherwise appreciates the world of genre cinema; a whole field of tropes and conventions that one can use and/or subvert to create a film is a great filmmaking tool when used right. My problem is that costume dramas, set in historical time periods where people wore elaborate dresses and wigs, never provide any concrete satisfaction unless they do something genuinely interesting with their material. These Austen-esque period pieces present us with a modern interpretation of a historical time period whilst rarely presenting us a modern series of characters for us to engage with.
They are forced reimaginings of various historical eras with or without various inevitable historical inaccuracies (and I don’t care about historical accuracy in film). Frequently, a costume drama will fall back on themes about the restrictions of social etiquette, about repressive societal notions barracking basic morals or political intrigue amongst people whose political ideals have long since become irrelevant. The challenge in these films is to bring these themes and present them in a way that is relatable to a modern audience. Otherwise, the film becomes just pretty window dressing for history.
Often, the best answer is to drop allusions to historicity altogether and just tell a story. Werner Herzog’s films are the most excellent example of this. He doesn’t so much do dramas set in historical time periods likes he takes sledgehammers to any notion of historicity and simply creates human stories. Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, or The Enigma of Kasper Hauser are both films about individual people and about ideas that these people represent, at least in the eyes of Herzog. The whole notion of who Kasper Hauser really was as a historical figure is fascinating, but what’s equally so is Werner Herzog’s interpretation of what he represents to us. Herzog takes stories he finds within history and wrenches ideas out of them.
A Royal Affair does the complete opposite. It takes a historical time period that was full of ideas (the Age of Enlightenment, and specifically the course it took in Denmark) and simple tells us a story about these ideas. This is a far more perfunctory, boring way of producing a film. To what extent A Royal Affair stays true to the historical facts I do not know. What I do know is that it tells us this particular story in such a boring, asinine way that for the most part I struggled to care.
It goes like this: King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) is a bit unhinged and uninterested in politics. When his personal physician Johann Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen) earns his trust and friendship, he convinces him to start playing the politics game a little and applying the principles of Enlightenment thinking 18th Century Denmark, the first place in Europe in which they were applied. Eventually, Streunsee becomes one of the most powerful men in the kingdom and also elects to start an affair with Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander).
If you’ve seen films like this before, you’ll also know exactly how the story plays out and how the screenplay is structured. There is a rise, then a wobble, then a fall. I spoke earlier of genre; one of the great advantages of genre is its predictability. In the right hands such predictability can be a great pleasure. One only needs a few moments of ingenuity to provide a wholly new take on an old formula. A Royal Affair follows the exact structure of many a costume drama like this to the letter to such an extent that the second half of the film is almost completely telegraphed. Unfortunately though, it is not in any way entertaining, nor does it aim to subvert any of its genre tropes. This is a film that falls firmly within the confines of its genre and at no point does it attempt to transcend beyond this.
Now I’ll be clear here, I am not complaining about the fact that one more or less knows the story if one knows the history. Many a great film has been based on historical fact in which a simple trip to Wikipedia means one knows the ending before one has even begun. But such films keep you guessing through other means – they use character, they use themes, they use ideas. I had no clue about the history of Denmark and its role in the Age of Enlightenment before seeing A Royal Affair, and yet I could see events and plot points coming from miles away. The screenplay, the film’s biggest issue, simply sucks any tension out of the film. Besides this, the political and philosophical discourse that the Age of Enlightenment helped create is swatted away in a rather dull simplification – old nobles are bad and greedy, Enlightenment people are nice and good – but we never come close to understanding what impact such ideas physically had on people in their day-to-day lives.
So what are the positives then? The performances themselves are pretty solid, given that many of the potentially multi-faceted characters are cut down and simplified by the nature of the screenplay. Mads Mikkelsen is fantastic, but that doesn’t surprise anyone. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard is pretty entertaining as the king, albeit in a role that clearly takes much inspiration from Tom Hulce’s portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus. The third and final lead in the film, Alicia Vikander, is gorgeously elegant and beautiful; she performs admirably in perhaps the film’s most boring role. The most interesting aspect of A Royal Affair involves King Christian VII and his aversion to politics and love for acting. Coupled with his eccentricities this provides for a highly complex and sad character, one who appears unable to express himself properly due to his position but wishes for nothing more than exactly that. Unfortunately, the film does not really focus on him or his psyche, preferring instead to ply its lot with the utterly predictable romantic relationship between Queen Caroline and Streunsee.
A Royal Affair is not an awful film. It is simply a very predictable and bland film. The garlands and critical acclaim it was bestowed with upon release are frankly baffling, as if no one had ever seen a film like this before. There are positives here, and it is a watchable film – it just simply never becomes interesting for more than a scene or two at a time.