Friday, 15 June 2012

GFT programme note: A Royal Affair


In Denmark, the events depicted in A Royal Affair are well known, with the scandal and its consequences taught in schools, as well as inspiring numerous books, an opera and a ballet.[1] For viewers in the UK, however, the tale is likely less familiar, unless acquainted with either Per Olov Enquist’s novelisation The Visit of the Royal Physician (1999), or Stella Tillyard’s historical overview of George III’s extended family, also titled A Royal Affair (2006). At a push, some may recollect The Dictator, a British adaptation directed by Victor Saville in 1935 (not to be confused with the recent Sacha Baron Cohen comedy). But despite the handful of precursors, it’s fair to say the source story does not carry the same popular recognition that supplied The Other Boleyn Girl (Justin Chadwick, 2008), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) or The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Valée, 2009) – to offer a handful of recent monarchic releases – with ready-made audiences. To summarise: the erratic and troubled King Christian VII presides over 18th century Denmark with an unsteady hand, manipulated and side-lined by his council; physician Johann Friedrich Struensee uses his close relationship with the King to implement liberal reforms, whilst conducting an affair with the Queen; the exposure of their trysts threatens both Struensee’s legacy, and his life. As far as royal dramas go, it offers considerably more interest than a damp flotilla down the Thames.

A Royal Affair fulfils multiple genre expectations: handsomely-dressed courtiers walk gilded hallways; primped kings and queens inhabit opulent ballrooms and take horseback jaunts through enormous fiefdoms; corseted passions give way to lust. Throughout, opulence fills the frame, yet director Nikolaj Arcel (who also co-wrote with regular collaborator Rasmus Heisterberg) insists that such trappings are mere background details, choosing to instead subtly align the film with a more contemporary style of filmmaking. In his director’s statement, Arcel writes: “my creative team and I were… fired up by the idea of bringing the Scandinavian historical drama into the new century. We didn’t want to ‘show’ history, didn’t want to dwell pointlessly on… the fancy dresses and hairdos, or the way the food was served. Rather, we wanted people to simply experience the story through the eyes of the characters, taking the 1760s for granted. Even though the period is obviously there in the set designs, the costumes… it was filmed and edited as we would have filmed and edited a film taking place in modern Copenhagen.”[2] In interview, he reiterates the point. “What we really wanted to do,” he explains, “was to bring the historical Scandinavian film into the new Millennium.”[3]

The capitalisation of ‘Millennium’ is accidental, but it has pertinent allusions. Arcel and Heisterberg are best known for adapting Steig Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor, retitled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) in English. The source novel and its sequels form the ‘Millennium trilogy’, the monumental success and popularity of which is well documented (in brief, approximately 55 million copies sold worldwide as of December 2011,[4] supported by a hit film adaptation that broke domestic box office records). During approximately the same period, another type of Nordic thriller has cultivated a comparably fervent fan-base, with Danish television drama shipped abroad to cultish praise: from The Killing (Forbrydelsen, 2007 – present) through to Borgen (2010 – present), Those Who Kill (Den som Dræber, 2011) and The Bridge (Broen, 2011 – present). A Royal Affair provides, of course, a very different viewing experience from Sarah Lund’s grim sleuthing or Lisbeth Salander’s vengeful agenda (though fans of either will spot many recognisable faces amongst the cast, including Dragon Tattoo’s David Dencik and The Killing’s Cyron Bjørn Melville). Nonetheless, it’s worth noting the way certain articles and reviews have sought to distinguish A Royal Affair from its ostensible genre: for instance, SBS paraphrase initial press reactions to its Berlinale premiere as “a period film for people who don’t like period films.”[5] Similarly, in an interview with The Huffington Post, Arcel stresses that his film is, first and foremost, a love story, but then goes on to emphasise its political-thriller credentials.[6] Such statements seem designed to petition multiple markets – both period drama enthusiasts, but also those with a more contemporary, voguish interest in Danish cultural exports.

A final point of comparison is Arcel’s directorial debut, King’s Game (Kongekabale, 2004). Like A Royal Affair, its plot features conspiracy in the corridors of Christiansborg – though not the lavish palace of Enlightenment-era Copenhagen. Rather, King’s Game takes place in the second replacement building to stand on the same ground (the original palace burned down in 1794; its replacement was likewise destroyed in 1884). The third Christiansborg continues to house royal reception rooms, while also acting as seat of the Danish Supreme Court and the country’s parliament, the Folketing; it is in the latter that the journalists and politicians of King’s Game conduct their schemes and counter-schemes. Betrayal, treason and sedition: the thematic similarities between the two films is clear, with both scrutinising the machinations of power, and the lengths some will go to acquire (and maintain) it. That the two are set on the same geographical site adds nuance to each film’s respective political portrait; though based on events 200 years removed, A Royal Affair ultimately feels modern in more ways than one.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
June 2012

[1] Nikolaj Arcel (2012), ‘A Royal Affair: Director’s Statement’, accessed 12/06/12 at
[2] ibid
[3] ‘The Perfect Mix Between Passion and Power’ (2012), accessed 12/06/12 at
[4] Alex Godfrey (2011) ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Steven Zaillian on the difficulties of adapting Stieg Larsson’, The Guardian, accessed 12/06/12 at
[5] Helen Barlow (2012), ‘A Royal Affair: Nikolaj Arcel Interview’ accessed 12/06/12 at
[6] Stephen Applebaum (2012) ‘Nikolaj Arcel – Writer/Director of A Royal Affair’ accessed 12/06/12 at

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