King Christian VII, who ruled Denmark and Norway during the advent of the Enlightenment, was plagued by mental illness. But as portrayed by Mikkel Følsgaard in the period saga A Royal Affair, he’s less insane than an incorrigible ham who’s accidentally been cast in the wrong genre. Upon being introduced, he establishes his oafishness in quick order: eating with his mouth open, staring at boobies, interrupting dinners and piano performances alike, all because he can. He’s less Caligula than the all-powerful psychotic kid from the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” not to mention the randiest royal since Mel Brooks in History of the World Part I. Apparently, it’s good to be the king.
A Royal Affair dwells not so much on Christian than the threesome of which he’s reluctantly a part. The film begins with him meeting his betrothed, British princess Carolina (Alicia Vikander), who’s nonplussed about having to give handjobs to someone who’s just going to traipse off to the whorehouse anyway. To both their salvations, in walks Frederich (Bond villain Mads “Bleeding Tears” Mikkelsen, again working effortless charisma). A country doctor and literal Renaissance Man, he’s able to calm down and influence the king, while providing progressive-minded companionship to a bored and intelligent queen. And also tasteful hot sex.
While Andrea Arnold’s new Wuthering Heights blows up the costume drama till it’s borderline unrecognizable, the first half of A Royal Affair settles for light sabotage from within. Følsgaard’s broad performance is one thing, but Nikolaj Arcel–who wrote the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo–constructs his product like Masterpiece Theatre with subtitles, sex and, most importantly, a sense of humor. The trashy fun can’t last, of course, and eventually A Royal Affair settles into a rote, simplistic and suspiciously modern treatise on progress versus regression. On the side of good are our three leads, who join together in erecting new laws and regulations, including a ban on torture. (Almost topical!) On the other are hissable religious zealots, who hoodwink the downtrodden masses with superstition, keeping them in check while legislating against their interests. Correct though it is, the sudden segue into self-seriousness leaves little to do but wait for someone to lose their head.