A Royal Affair (***)
Nikolaj Arcel’s richly textured historical costume drama, A Royal Affair, is tailor designed for the likes of Oscar®, and by sheer grandeur of production will most certainly be a nominee in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category. A Royal Affair tells the spellbinding 16th-century tale of one passionate liaison that brought down the entire royal order of Denmark and changed the social climate of the country forever. Before the legendary fling ensues, Arcel puts all his focus into establishing all three of his major characters within the context of the story. We begin with Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander), an innocent maiden of wealth from England, forced into marrying the highly bizarre and often downright cruel King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Arcel captures the awkwardness of pre-arranged marriage so exceptionally. The two clearly share no love for one another, even though Caroline is at first fascinated by the thought of being a queen and living with her noble King in a beautiful palace, but is instantly repulsed by his contempt toward her and her talents — he mocks and berates her profusely when she puts on a private piano concert for the court, and it is there that Caroline realizes she is forever trapped in a world of madness and horror, one that enslaves her until death.
Caroline soon discovers a glimmer of hope in the form of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor recently appointed to the king after his last was dismissed, unable to quell the inner rage within Christian. Struenee is the first man to tame the beast, so to speak. You see, King Christian is a highly complex character, played with dynamic range by Følsgaard. At this period in time, mental illnesses like manic depression or disorders like autism and AD/HD weren’t yet diagnosed. Most historians would just write off people with these afflictions as deranged and highly abnormal. For a king, we often hear the term “mad” being ascribed, but that’s so vague in the grand scheme of things. What do we really know about said king, and is it fair to peg him as crazy without knowing more? This is A Royal Affair’s greatest contribution — to greatly study its complex subjects like King Christian and deconstruct the notion of “madness” in this conservative period. After all, once Struensee shows kindness and paternal warmth, the frustrations of Christan subside, and out emerges a sensible and very liberal king who wants to do right by his people.
What King Christian and his judiciary court do not know is that Johann Friedrich Struensee is a member of the Enlightenment, a progressive movement that wants to give more power to the people, taking it away from the likes of the King’s ignoramus council. Johann uses the trust he has built with the King to reverse the conservative laws of Denmark (which at this time was one of the few great nations that hadn’t progressed alongside the rest of liberal Europe), including doing away with serfdom and disbanding the King’s Council altogether. What King Christian is unaware of is the long-spanning affair between Struensee and Caroline. Caroline and Struensee are both radically liberal, but would never admit to it in public, but because of this they share a common bond and soon form a deep friendship, which then evolves into love. Part of the problem I have with A Royal Affair is that the “affair” portion is so unbelievable and sparsely touched upon. Vikander and Mikkelson exude no chemistry together, and so their romantic fling seems more a convenient one to the story than an organic, believable event that is worth fighting for. What happens to all three of these characters is a tragedy that you’ll have to witness for yourself, but because the affair is so uninteresting, and the romantic connection between Vikander’s Caroline and Mikkelsen’s Struensee so artificially constructed, the cataclysmic events that follow the discovery of the affair by the Danish royalty make the fling seem wasteful and carelessly destructive. We never root for Caroline and Johann to end up together, and so you often feel more angry at the affair than swept up by the romanticism of it. In fact, King Christian draws out our sympathies most as the film progresses, with Følsgaard delivering one of the best supporting performances of 2012, one that will easily be singled out about amongst critics’ groups. A Royal Affair is a finely constructed drama that evokes the period’s unflinching intolerance. Although the titular “affair” portion is the least interesting aspect of this costume drama (oddly enough), stay for the politics and Arcel’s masterful deconstruction of the “mad king” label. A Royal Affair will be released theatrically in the U.S. on November 9th, 2012.
The Hunt (***½)
Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is the second major Mads Mikkelson vehicle of the year, and should have been the Danish submission for “Best Foreign Language Film” instead of A Royal Affair. Greatly aided by a gloriously subtle performance by Mads Mikkelsen, this alarmingly powerful Danish drama focuses on one village’s mass hysteria following a little girl’s false accusations of sexual abuse. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who yearns for a better career, hoping a new job can prove to his ex-wife that he has the financial means to co-raise their son, Marcus. Amongst Lucas’ class, a little girl named Klara has developed a crush on him and expresses her love by openly kissing Lucas on the lips during the student’s playtime with their teacher. Taken aback, Lucas manages to compose himself and handle the situation with grace. He gently chastises Klara, explaining to her that she should only be kissing her mother and father on the mouth. Lucas thinks the matter is solved, but Klara feels rejected and exacts a horrible vengeance soon thereafter. She tells the principal of the school that Lucas showed her his erect penis when the two were alone together in the classroom. Horrified, Principal Grethé summons Lucas to her office the next day, tells him he is on suspension until she can solve the matter (not that she cares what he has to say, mind you), and soon brings in a “child expert” to verify the validity of Klara’s accusations.
The scenes to follow are especially revealing. Before graduating college, I took a senior seminar class titled “Media and Moral Panic,” a film class that focused on the rise of mass hysteria surrounding cases of child sexual abuse, overblown by the media and turning communities into flesh eating zombies who make it their mission to destroy the life of the accuser before all the facts have been presented. More than anything, The Hunt demonstrates how even being accused of such a crime, whether the accusations are accurate or not, forever shames you in the eyes of society, with no hope of repairing your reputation. Much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Lucas is branded by the townsfolk as the bane of the community in the course of a few short hours. Grethé’s “child expert” coaxes a confession from Klara by putting words into her mouth and asking her outlandish questions that falsely dramatize the events instead of seeking out the truth. Klara tries to take back her story, but is intimidated by the feverish adults that seem hungry for a violent witch hunt. The police then become involved, followed closely by the entire community, ready to pounce on Lucas before he’s even given an opportunity to defend himself. There is no proof of abuse, no witnesses to attest to the crime, with only Klara’s word against Lucas’. Apparently, that is enough to arrest Lucas, enough to eviscerate his life as he knows it.
The film works because it unravels in equal pace to the speed in which the accused crime blows out of proportion: slow and then highly explosive. Three scenes encapsulate the horror of The Hunt, found in the gross, inhuman behavior by individuals who call themselves upstanding citizens: A gruesomely violent scene in a grocery store, an uncomfortable Christmas church service, and the closing moments — allegorically placed — where the community celebrates manhood by engaging in a woodland hunt. The Hunt’s only misstep is when it drifts off in the middle to focus on Lucas’ son, Marcus, yielding no payoff for such exploration. The Hunt is a reminder of how virulent and damaging widespread hysteria can be, ruining lives and damaging humanity in the process. Mads Mikkelsen, with a single stone-faced glare of contempt and sadness, more than convinces us that his Cannes win for “Best Actor” for this movie was no fluke.