Watch: A Royal Affair

Arts & Culture

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (Magnolia Pictures, 2012)

Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s historical romance, nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, tells how a German country doctor who became the private physician of the king of Denmark—and the secret lover of the queen—nearly managed to single-handedly bring a backward nation into the Enlightenment.

The story opens as the teenaged Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander) arrives from England to wed King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Christian proves to be an infantile imbecile uninterested in governance or marriage and soon deserts his pregnant wife and medieval country for a whirlwind tour of Europe’s capitals. On the road he is assigned Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) as a personal physician, who loves to womanize and drink with his employer.

As it turns out, Johann is also a man of letters, and his luggage is filled with the works of Enlightenment writers like Voltaire and Rousseau. When the king and his doctor return to the Danish court, the young Queen Caroline finds herself drawn to her husband’s doctor, leading her to read and discuss the dangerous ideas with him in his private library before inviting him into her lonely bedroom.

The illicit lovers begin to plot their own reforms of Danish society, using Christian as a compliant puppet to pass progressive laws and to undermine the power of a superstitious and authoritarian elite. Within a short period of time Johann has become the virtual ruler of Denmark, ushering in a wave of educational, legal, and health reforms.

His zeal provokes the rage of his opponents, the fear of a traditional people, and the wrath of a jealous king. Though Johann’s one-man revolution may have had to wait for another generation, as Arcel’s drama unfolds one hopes that the good (if not always moral) doctor will succeed.


This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 3, page 42).