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Film / A Royal Affair

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A Royal Affair (original Danish title En kongelig affære) is a 2012 historical drama film, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and starring Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen and Mikkel Følsgaard.

It's a Based on a True Story tale of the extremely unfortunate marriage between English princess Caroline Matilda and King Christian VII of Denmark. Caroline (Vikander) is sent off to Denmark for the standard royal Arranged Marriage only to discover that her husband (Følsgaard) is mentally ill with periodic bouts of violent behavior. She lets the king touch her just long enough to fulfill her duty and produce a male heir (the future King Frederick VI) and then announces that she never wants to cohabitate with her husband again; Caroline tends to her son while Christian cavorts with hookers.

Enter newly hired royal physician Dr. Johann Struensee (Mikkelsen). Struensee attends to the erratic, possibly schizophrenic king, and succeeds in getting Christian to behave better. Meanwhile a lonely Caroline is drawn to the doctor, who is not only handsome but also has a lot of farsighted ideas about the Enlightenment and progressive change in Denmark, ideas that Caroline sympathizes with. Soon enough Struensee and Caroline are having a torrid affair, while Struensee more or less becomes dictator of Denmark, working through Christian to bring all sorts of reforms to Denmark. However, Christian's other advisors don't take too kindly to a foreign doctor attempting to curb their power and set out to stop him and Caroline, at all costs.

This film contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Dye-Job: In Real Life Caroline Matilda was very fair and blonde.
  • Adaptational Name Change: It's also documented that she didn't use "Caroline" by the time of her marriage and had grown up Only Known By Her Nickname as simply "Matilda"; obviously the movie doesn't do a very good job of pointing this out.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Between Caroline and Struensee, with the latter being visibly older than the former (during filming Mads Mikkelsen was around 46, Alicia Vikander was around 22). In real life, Caroline was around 18 years old and Struensee was around 33 years old when they began their affair (it's unclear when exactly they became lovers, it being a secret affair and all, but by the middle of 1770 people had started to notice their closeness). Caroline clearly admires Struensee's maturity and life experience, greatly preferring him to her actual husband who is closer to her age (Christian being a spoilt and mentally unstable manchild more interested in prostitutes than her).
  • Age Lift: Johann Struensee. In real life, he was in his early thirties when he began an affair with Caroline and died at the age of thirty-four. Here, he's played by Mads Mikkelsen, who was in his late forties at the time.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Privy Council seem to play this straight, with their desire to uphold serfdom and the right to flog and torture their peasants. They're even against inoculating the common people of Denmark against smallpox. Averted by Queen Caroline, who works to improve the lives of commoners.
  • Arranged Marriage: Caroline and Christian have one at the beginning of the film. It turns out to be a disaster from day one. They have nothing in common and Christian's mental illness contributes to him behaving erratically and frequently humiliating Caroline. He finds her boring and much prefers the company of prostitutes, while Caroline finds him to be an insufferable manchild who is either oblivious or callous towards her unhappiness. To make matters worse, Caroline feels extremely out-of-place at the repressive and power-hungry Danish court, and has few friends and allies until Struensee comes along, with Caroline beginning an affair with him.
  • Artistic License – History: The film is pretty accurate for the most part, but a few inconsistencies include Struensee speaking fluent Danish all the time (he actually spoke mostly German, barely being able to speak Danish, which further alienated him from the Danish court) and the letter Caroline has smuggled to her children, revealing the truth behind her affair and her daughter's parentage, which probably didn't happen and could actually have proved disastrous for Princess Louise Auguste if it had fallen into the wrong hands. However, it is generally accepted as fact that Struensee probably was Louise Auguste's real father, which lots of people at the time seemed to believe too.
  • Authority in Name Only: It quickly becomes obvious that Christian is this. However, he starts exercising his power more with help from Struensee.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bordering on Downer Ending. Caroline and Struensee's affair is discovered and Struensee is declared a traitor. Caroline is sent away to the country and never sees her children again, whilst Struensee is executed and all his reforms are overturned. But, on her deathbed Caroline writes a letter explaining everything to her two children and it's revealed that upon becoming king, her son returned to Struensee's reforming ways, making Denmark a better and more free country for all its people.
  • Brainy Brunette: Caroline is intelligent, well-educated and likes to read. Their shared love of books and philosophy is what first warms Caroline up to Struensee.
  • Break the Cutie: Practically the first twenty minutes of the film are dedicated to this for poor Caroline. And then it gets worse.
  • Caligula's Horse: Christian demands that his dog, Gourmand, is made an honorary member of the privy council.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: We see the aftermath of this on a poor Danish peasant, after being punished by his lord. It's one of many things Struensee tries to outlaw in Denmark.
  • Costume Porn: It won a Satellite Award for Best Costume Design.
  • Dance of Romance: Struensee and Caroline have one at a royal ball, complete with gazing into each other's eyes in slow motion. It's strongly implied this is truly when they realize they are in love, as they have their first kiss and then sleep together soon after.
  • Decadent Court: The Danish royal court comes across as this, especially within Christian's inner circle, with lots of hedonism and scheming behind closed doors (and not always behind closed doors when it comes to Christian).
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Caroline (double points for being an actual queen) comes across as aloof and unfriendly due to becoming miserable and bitter about her disastrous marriage to Christian. She starts to thaw once she meets Struensee.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Caroline crosses this after she learns of Struensee's death.
  • Divine Right of Kings: Struensee exploits this to get Christian to take charge of the kingdom from the self-serving Privy Council.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The opening scene (or anyone familiar with Danish history) lets the viewer know this story is not going to have a happy ending.
  • Framing Device: A Voiceover Letter that Caroline, now in exile writes to her children, explaining what happened.
  • Friend Versus Lover: Struensee is the king's friend at the beginning, a sympathetic presence to stabilize him and treat his many issues. Christian has a better relationship with him than with most people. Everything changes when Struensee and Caroline end up falling for each other, but even then Struensee continues to use the king's trust in him for political purposes, always with the Well-Intentioned Extremist thought that they and Caroline can improve Denmark, and so his friend and lover aren't really so set against each other after all. Of course, this doesn't last.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Neither Christian nor Caroline are faithful to each other. Christian's numerous dalliances with prostitutes is treated less sympathetically than Caroline's affair with Struensee. At some points Christian brings prostitutes into the palace where Caroline can see, humiliating her in front of the court. Caroline puts up with Christian's wild and sometimes cruel behavior for years with little in the way of support and companionship, until she falls in love with Struensee. They also try to keep their affair discreet (though everyone figures it out eventually). Caroline passing off her daughter with Struensee as Christian's is treated as a necessary act to protect her children, and the lovers are punished extremely harshly for their affair in their end.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Caroline wears several beautiful and elaborate late 18th century outfits, all of them suitably pimped-out as befits a queen.
  • The Hedonist: Christian, indulging himself with prostitutes and booze, and possibly bondage and whipping.
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade: Both Caroline and Struensee; while Caroline was sometimes described as beautiful, she self-deprecatingly described herself as at a level where she could converse with men without making women jealous, and was nowhere near as slim or modernly attractive as Vikander. Likewise, portraits of Struensee don't show him with the same kind of chiseled handsomeness Mikkelsen has.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with an exiled Caroline writing a letter to her children, explaining how this came to be. The rest of the film takes place before this.
  • Internal Reformist: Struensee, with the help of Caroline, by working the system. It works initially, but eventually the Privy Council catches on and plots against them.
  • It's All About Me: Christian usually cares about little but satisfying his own whims and desires with no thought to the consequences, until Struensee comes along and convinces him he could actually use his power to make good changes.
  • Jerkass: Christian. He's a sadistic, immature, spoiled brat who treats his wife horribly. However, he has severe mental health issues which are not properly understood or treated, and he is continually manipulated or undermined by his stepmother and the Privy Council, arguably making him more of a Jerkass Woobie.
  • Kick the Dog: Christian has several moments. This includes:
    • Telling his new wife in front of everyone to "move her fat thighs" away from the piano, because he thinks she's upstaging him.
    • Physically attacking, then banishing, his wife's only friend from court, out of jealousy.
  • Love Epiphany: Caroline and Struensee have a beautiful moment in the middle of a crowded ballroom, where you can physically see them realise that they love each other.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: Played with. Struensee and Caroline's relationship actually helps make the realm a better place, giving more rights and freedom to the common people, thanks to Struensee's influence on Christian. But the Privy Council clearly don't see this as being a good thing and end up manipulating the people to turn on Struensee so they can reclaim their power, setting Denmark back to square one.
  • The Mentally Ill: Christian is this, which is why he needs to be under a doctor's care, and while some of it can be improved by Struensee's tack of not treating everything he does as a sign of him being ill, not everything can.
  • Mirror Character: Struensee has benevolent motives about bringing the Enlightenment to Denmark, but he winds up manipulating the addled king just like the Privy Council did. He even tells Christian to "Just sign it" when handing over a document like the head of the Privy Council did—in fact he goes a step further by getting Christian to sign a decree allowing Struensee to sign laws by himself.
  • Morning Sickness: A shot of Caroline sitting up in bed and then barfing is followed by the announcement that she's pregnant.
  • Not Actually His Child: Struensee is the father of Caroline's daughter. They contrive to have Christian share a bed with Caroline as soon as she realizes she's pregnant in order for Christian to believe the baby's his. He doesn't catch on until their affair is revealed later.
  • Off with His Head!: Happens to Struensee after he's accused of treason.
  • Oscar Bait: Period Piece? Check. A tragic love story, set against the backdrop of political reform and political intrigue? Check. Based on a True Story? Check. Angst? You bet. It was actually nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards, but lost to Amour.
  • Prince Charmless: Christian (who's technically a king) turns out to be this, much to Caroline's disappointment.
  • Puppet King: Christian effectively becomes this to Struensee (though Struensee's intentions are benevolent - he wants to use Christian's power to bring Enlightenment reforms into Denmark to free the people).
  • Questionable Consent: Caroline and Christian's wedding night. She's clearly uncomfortable, even pushing him away and saying no at one point, but feels it's her duty, especially after her mother told her that if she can get the king into her bed on the first night, she'll be seen as "a great success".
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The very end, where Caroline's lady in waiting smuggles Caroline's final letter to her children. The afterword and history bears out that it gets better.
  • Royal Favorite: Johann Struensee becomes the favorite to both King Christian and Queen Caroline. Christian invites him to court because he finds him interesting and amusing, and he becomes one of his closest advisors; Struensee eventually ends up basically running the country. Caroline is initially uncertain, but over time they become close over their shared values and interests, to the point they fall in love and begin a secret affair. Unfortunately for Struensee, the Privy Council don't take kindly to a liberal outsider having so much influence and carrying on a relationship with the queen, and it ends extremely badly for him.
  • Ruling Couple: An unusual example: Queen Caroline and her secret lover Struensee become this. The king's more interested in partying.
  • Screaming Birth: Caroline has one when she gives birth to her first child. When the physician tells her that a "true queen gives birth in dignified silence", it just prompts her to scream louder.
  • Sexless Marriage: After giving birth to their son and heir, Caroline stops trying to encourage Christian to share her bed and they don't sleep together for years; she finds sex with him repulsive and he carries on affairs with prostitutes anyway, though the situation is still humiliating for Caroline. This becomes a problem when Caroline finds out she's pregnant with Struensee's child; everyone at court knows she and Christian aren't intimate, which risks her affair being exposed. She and Struensee have to persuade Christian to sleep with her so they can pass off the child as his, though some courtiers are still suspicious.
  • Staggered Zoom: Onto a seething Struensee in the scene where Caroline is inviting the king into her bedchamber, because she knows she has to pass off Struensee's child as the king's.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Caroline and Struensee. She's a princess, trapped in her marriage to Christian, whilst he's the royal physician and her husband's advisor. It doesn't end well for either of them.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Caroline is treated very sympathetically - her marriage to Christian is miserable and loveless and Christian treats her very poorly, whilst Struensee treats her as an equal and loves her. Her punishment for the affair also comes off as extremely harsh by modern standards, including never being able to see her children again.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: A mob that is actually wielding torches and pitchforks descends on the castle to overthrow Struensee. It's not a true popular mob however as it's stirred up by the Queen Dowager and includes members of the king's guard.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Christian's scheming stepmother, Queen Dowager Juliane Marie.