Niels Arcel, best known in the U.S. as one of the screenwriters on the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, reteams with Rasmus Heisterberg, his partner on that film, to tackle Bodil Steensen-Leth’s novel about madness in the dawning age of enlightenment in Denmark. Steensen-Leth’s take focuses on the perspective of Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), the young Brit forced to marry Denmark’s Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), the unstable young ruler who cares more for drinking, big breasted women and fighting than the tedious affairs of state. The situation of Caroline’s loveless marriage and the tyranny of royal council turns dramatically with the arrival of Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikklesen), a small-time German doctor with big philosophical ideas that run counter to the political and ideological establishment.
Struensee introduces an enlightened approach to dealing with Christian’s “madness,” which feels contemporary. Affair will be compared to The Madness of King George due to the exploration of insanity on the throne, but where in King George humor is used to draw audiences into the history, in this case, the title says it all; we are hooked here through sex. While Christian fails to appreciate the subtle charms of his thoughtful young queen, Struensee responds to her interest in “banned” literature and politically charged ideas as well as her untapped emotional passions. While there are heated moments in the bedroom, the fiery nature of change takes fullest effect in the streets once societal restraints are lifted. We know, of course, that this loosening of the mores will not end well. Sex and power simply do not mix because such couplings never remain locked behind closed doors. A Royal Affair begins and ends with Caroline Mathilde passing along her personal perspective on this tale of woe, but if audiences are daring enough to place themselves in Christian’s royal boots, it becomes apparent that he’s the perfect stand-in for the people of Denmark and maybe even for us today as we continue to realize our potential. Now open at Esquire Theatre. (R) Grade: B