A Royal Affair not only tells an engrossing tale of love, passion, politics and royal intrigue but also manages to elicit your interest in the painful birth pains of modernity in Europe (a subject which is not generally known as a crowd-pleaser) while at the same time giving you an insight into a country that most of us non-Danes know little about.
Set in Denmark in the age of Enlightenment, the film depicts historical events that are well known in Denmark but which most non-Danes are presumably unfamiliar with – myself included. As my knowledge of Denmark is limited to that of many a comic to various countries – that particular country’s main airport – gig in venue (in Copenhagen’s case an Irish pub) – then off to the next city, my knowledge of Danish history is less than miniscule. I’d assumed Denmark to have always been a liberal, forward-thinking country, an assumption whose erroneousness this film intelligently and skilfully dispels.
The film tells the true story of a British princess sent to marry an insane Danish king at a time when Denmark was stultified by religion, superstition and the horrors of feudalism including the enslavement of its peasantry through serfdom. Wed for political reasons to King Christian VII before she has even met him, Caroline thus finds herself in a strange country and in a loveless marriage, isolated from the relative liberal freethinking of British court life. It is a country where even the Queen’s books aren’t above falling foul of strict Danish censorship laws and they are promptly packed off back to England.
The King proves to be volatile, insecure, easily manipulated, childish, vindictive, and it would seem at times insane. He is pulled in all directions by the various would-be kingmakers ensconced at the Royal Court. Looming in the background like a Black Widow Spider is the Queen Dowager, biding her time to place her own son on the throne. Against this background Caroline resigns herself to her fate as a Queen in a loveless marriage having fulfilled her primary duty as consort and produced an heir.
Meanwhile in Altona, a Danish colony in Germany, (no I didn’t know they existed either), 2 Danish ex-courtiers, Brandt and Count Rantzau, who have fallen foul of the current Kingmaker in Denmark, Bernstorff, enlist a freethinking Doctor, Johann Struensee to apply for the post of King’s new personal physician. They hope that once installed in this position, he will gain the ear of the king and use his position to have Brand and Rantzau reinstated at court. The good Doctor does indeed become the King’s physician and soon he becomes the king’s only trusted friend at court. Whilst there, Struensee is appalled to see how the King is nothing more than a conduit for the real power behind the throne – Bernstorff and the nobles, signing edicts he has little or no say over.
The Queen however begins to suspect there is more to the doctor than she had thought when she chances upon the Dr’s hidden book collection containing writings by Rousseau and Diderot, works then banned in Denmark. The Queen and Dr Struensee go out riding together but their discussion of the great and – for the times – revolutionary thinkers of the day is brought to a sharp halt when they are brought face to face with the reality of life in Denmark in the form of a dead serf who has been tortured to death by his master. The scene provides a vivid contrast between the ideas of the enlightenment which paved the way for modern thinking and the vestiges of old Europe which was still the harsh reality for most of Europe’s inhabitants at the time.
At court Struensee encourages the King to take a more active role in the governing of his country. He encourages him to overcome any misgivings he has by treating the whole affair as if it were an acting role, the King having a fondness for all things thespian. Meanwhile the Queen and Dr Struensee finally become lovers and for the first time since her arrival in Denmark the Queen finds happiness. In Dr Struensee not only has Queen Caroline found a fellow freethinker but also her soul mate. It’s one of those stories if it wasn’t based on true life events, you’d find hard to believe.
Forming an ever increasing circle of freethinkers at the court, they encourage the King to take a more liberal stance but the Council under Bernstorff prove to be more intransigent than they thought. His ideas constantly rejected, the King becomes despondent.
Meanwhile the Queen Dowager and her ally Guldberg are unhappy at Struensee’s influence over the King and plot the former’s downfall. With ambitions of her own for her son to sit on the throne , the Queen Dowager has no interest in seeing King Christian prove effective as King. Having discovered the Dr’s enlightenment credentials, they enlist Bernstorff to have the Dr expelled from both the Court and Denmark. However, at the thought of losing his only friend and the only man he can trust at court, the King finally stands up to Bernstorff and relieves him of his duties instead whereupon he dissolves the entire council. In its place the King sets up a cabinet consisting of himself and Dr Struensee. With the Council gone and the King, Johann and the Queen at the helm, a brief period of enlightenment is ushered into Denmark. A raft of initiatives are set in motion from a general inoculation programme against smallpox for the people, the setting up of a home for orphaned children, the abolition of corporal punishment and torture to the removal of censorship. Hundreds of laws are passed to improve the lot of the Danish people. With the arrival of the Enlightenment in Denmark, the country now becomes one of the leading lights of Europe, even attracting the attention of Voltaire.
However as the adage goes, power corrupts. The Dr, who had hated the way the King was nothing more than a puppet whose strings were pulled by Bernstorff, ends up treating the King in the very same fashion. Like many a man no doubt before and since, he realises that it’s fine having ideals, it’s slightly harder to keep to them when you are actually in a position of power.
Enjoying the full confidence of the King, Struensee makes powerful enemies whilst lacking the ruthlessness of a more Machiavellian power player who no doubt would have had them all eliminated. Trying to establish a new order means of course the old order fight a rear-guard action to try and retain the power they feel is their birth right. They respond by instigating a hate campaign among the Danish people aimed at Struensee and the Queen using those tried and tested methods of ridicule, scandal and xenophobia. As a result, Struensee, this most enlightened of men, is forced to reinstate censorship in a bid to flood the tide of propaganda against him and the Queen.
Finally Struensee’s enemies stage a march on the palace in league with the military. The weak-willed king is told the only way he can save himself from the people is to hand over the German Dr. To placate the King’s doubts about betraying his only friend, the King is then told that the Dr, the Queen and their friend Brandt are plotting to kill him. In the end the King does as he always does and does as he’s told.
Needless to say neither the good Dr, the Queen or Denmark meet with a fortuitous end. The latter returns to the Middle Ages now that it’s the turn of Guldberg to order round the King.
It really is a great story even the epilogue sounds like it has the makings of another great film when we’re told that Caroline’s son with his father’s assistance staged a coup d’état at the tender age of 16, banishing Guldberg, the Queen Dowager and their cabinet from court, and went on to reign for over half a century. In which time he re-enacted almost all of Struensee’s laws and even went one step further, abolishing serfdom and liberating the peasants.
While on the one hand the film keenly charts the political and intellectual infighting of 18th century Europe – in itself no mean task, at the same time you really feel for the characters. I found I ended up falling in love with the film just as the characters fall in love with each other. You believe their love story, their passion for each other and their battle to bring about change. You empathise with their struggle and ultimately with their failure against overwhelming odds. In essence it’s a love story between two people, who due to circumstance, convention and the mores of their time, can’t be together. To repeat a quote by Rousseau cited in the film “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.
© Maureen Younger and www.maureenyounger.com, [2013-2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Maureen Younger and www.maureenyounger.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.