A staid and overly elongated period piece, A Royal Affair attempts to punch up its anodyne tale of forbidden romance among members of the 18th-century Danish court with a few quirky and philosophical touches. While its central love story between the Queen (Alicia Vikander) and her husband's doctor, Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), is dead on arrival, Nikolaj Arcel's film gains a momentary fillip from the slightly more complex character of the half-mad king (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) and the historical setting in which Enlightenment ideas vie with the close-minded rule of the royal council. But the romance eventually takes center stage, the film's historical trajectory unfolds with bland inevitability, and what had distinguished the film from any number of other tasteful period exercises becomes irrevocably lost.
After an introductory title briefs us on the conflict between free-thinkers and close-minded rulers and a quick framing device reveals the queen writing to her children, the film flashes back a decade, situating us in 1766 and showing us the young woman who would be ruler being whisked off from her native England to marry King Christian VII of Denmark. Introduced hiding behind a tree, ignoring his bride upon her arrival, and then lavishing oversized affection on his enormous dog, King Christian is a cheeky creation. Distinguished by Følsgaard's weird bemused cackle, the monarch is content to go off whoring while treating his wife and the affairs of state alike with nearly complete indifference. But while this twitchy dandyish playboy is initially presented as a bit of a loathsome character, he's soon revealed to be confused and inwardly tortured, if not downright crazy, as the power-mongering court is content to believe him to be.
Before long, under the influence of Dr. Struensee, a man of the Enlightenment, the king begins instituting reforms, such as outlawing official censorship and establishing orphanages, that anger the royal council—a group of old-guard conservatives whose outright hostility to social welfare makes them sound not too different from our present-day U.S. Republicans. There's a real charge in watching this nervous individual propose his legislation to the council, assuming at first his typical clownish pose, and then definitively asserting his prerogatives as king once they refuse to take him seriously.
Unfortunately, as the plans for reform begin to go awry, due largely to the financial burden of carrying them out, the film settles into a long final act. It's here that the King is reduced by both the council and the film to playing a supporting role (and, yes, politics as performance is a theme lightly touched on here), and the focus shifts to the unconvincing and utterly conventional tale of doomed romance. Ostensibly a feminist film, sympathetic to the plight of a young woman thrown into untenable circumstances in which she's forced to play the part of mother to the king's heir, A Royal Affair is too tepid in its treatment of its central character and her situation to generate any real emotive charge. Only when switching its focus to her whoremongering turned reformist husband does the film temporarily escape the strictures of the dead-in-the-water historical piece.