Interview: A Royal Affair Writer-director Nikolaj Arcel

Despite its scandalous, salacious title, the Danish film A Royal Affair is as much about the 18th-century struggle between faith-based fear and Enlightenment ideals as it is about a queen’s furtive glances during court dinners.

There is a passionate affair in the film: between the British-born Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark (Swedish actressAlicia Vikander) and the German doctor Johann Struensee (Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen, best known here for Casino Royale) who is initially hired to care for Denmark’s young, mentally ill King Christian VII (terrific Danish newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard).

But for writer-director Nikolaj Arcel (who co-wrote the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) what’s more important than royal romance is Struensee’s efforts to bring Enlightenment reason and reforms to the Denmark in the early 1770s–efforts that cost him dearly, but made him a Danish historical hero.

A Royal Affair, which was co-written by Rasmus Heisterberg, was originally based on Per Olov Enquist’s 1999 novel The Visit of the Royal Physician. That book’s film rights had, however, already been optioned, so Arcel and Heisterberg ended up also using the erotic novel Prinsesse af blodet by Bodil Steensen-Leth as their narrative hook.

Either way, the resulting film, anchored by its excellent lead performances, is a rich, sumptuous, and layered story of not just the usual political mechanisms and betrayals behind the throne, but also a highly relevant look at the clash between reform-minded ideas and Dark-Ages censorship and persecution.

I sat down with Nikolaj Arcel last month during the Chicago International Film Festival, and when we weren’t both running off-topic about our feelings about past and present Speilberg films, we talked about A Royal Affair, how ideals get corrupted, and the new wave of Danish film making.

A Royal Affair opens this weekend in select theaters across the country.

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Why is the story of Johann Struensee so important to the Danish people and to you?

Nikolaj Arcel: It’s one of the most famous stories in Danish history–to Danish people, that is, not to anyone else. [laughs] They teach it in school, there’ve been so many books about it, operas, everything. I think the banal reason for that is that it’s a great love story. And it’s also a tale of rise and fall of a nobody who becomes a de facto king. It’s a great, classic story. You want a story to have all these elements, and this one has them.

To me, it’s the idea of the Enlightenment sweeping through Europe, the politics of that, the rebellion against royalty and trying to get freedom for the “regular people.” That’s what fascinated me.

You have a story of a German “outsider” being pilloried for trying to bring progressive reforms and ideas based on science and reason to a nation mired in reactionary religious faith. That sounds a little familiar.

Arcel: It was not accidental. That’s all I will say on the subject! [laughs] But we didn’t think, “Let’s make an allegory for American politics.” It’s more an allegory for Danish and European politics. It’s a story that happens a lot in history. Whenever there are visionaries who are trying to do good, there are so many interest groups that will try to destroy that, no matter who you are or what party you come from. Even back then, they could bring Struensee down and turn the entire people of Denmark against him, even though all he did was try to help them, which I find quite horrifying. That could be an allegory for anywhere.

Nor is Struensee a completely pure hero. His ideals also become somewhat corrupted.

Arcel: Power corrupts, it does. I think it’s very, very hard to be in a position of power and not be corrupted, and I think you see that everywhere with every kind of office or job, but especially politics. Struensee was a hero to me–he did good things, but he also got slightly corrupted. He forgot that his job was to make the king mentally well and help the king be a good king. He thought, “This is taking too long, let me be the king and do it right now.” He forgot his own ideals.

It happens. When I look at Obama, I see two different people. You see the guy from 2008 who was a beacon of shining hope, but even after two years you could see his idealism fade more and more. I’m not saying he’s no longer an idealist, but he found out the practicalities of it. I’m betting he wishes he could just shut down some newspapers or networks. That’s what happened to Struensee. It’s the reality of politics. My first film [2004's King's Game] was a political thriller that I researched for a long time, and I found out that politics are just a whole another reality than what you think. Everything is so steeped in bureaucracy and going through channels, and it’s very hard to make any laws and do anything and make any decisions.

But the film also places its hopes on the children Caroline, Christian (and Johann), on Princess Louise and the future king Frederick VI of Denmark. There is the sense that even dashed ideals can lay seeds of reform in the next generation.

Arcel: It was very important to say that you have to struggle and do these things if you really feel you can change the world and make it a better place. Because even if you don’t succeed, there will be people who will be inspired by it, the children will take over. That’s what happened here and throughout the entire world at the same time. Johann wasn’t the only guy who thought about implementing the Enlightenment, but he was the first one who did it from inside the court. You had the American and French Revolutions later, and it happened in various ways and various places, but this was the only place where he got inside and said, “Let’s re-imagine the royal court as a place of Enlightenment.”

Were you nervous about making a big historical film full of costumes and carriages and palace sets?

Arcel: The overall fear you always have as a writer-director is are you going to be able to do this at all? Have you any idea about this genre? I’ve done four different genres as a director, and I’ve never known ahead of time if I could successfully do it.

The way we approached A Royal Affair was not to think of it as a historical film and to not make it stuffy, but say, “Yes it takes place in the 1760s, but let’s treat it as if it were today, let’s treat the character as if they were modern characters, let’s treat the story as if it were a modern drama, and not spend too much time on all the historical parts of it.” We didn’t pay to much attention to all the big, wide shots of history – we didn’t have money for that anyway, but that was okay because we wanted to stay with the characters.

But your small budget never shows. And when you did have a big, lovely historical vista shot, it made those shots all the more visually powerful.

Arcel: Right, you know take for example Steven Spielberg. When he makes a film now, he can put in everything and the kitchen sink, but if you take something like Jaws, where they didn’t have money to make that damn shark work, they just did small things, and that’s one of his best films, even today. You see a lot of directors whose films from the ‘70s, where they didn’t have a lot of money, are so much better than later films where they had a huuuge amount of cash. Sometimes the storytelling is better when you don’t have that much to spend.

You also got a lot for your money from your strong cast, especially Mads Mikkelsen. His eyes and profile and jawline seem tailor-made for a royal drama.

Arcel: By far he is the number-one movie star of Denmark. When I wrote this script, he wasn’t doing Danish films anymore, he was gone —it’d been five years since he’d done a Danish film. But I thought who better? We needed somebody who would carry this film and make a big impression, and I always thought it should be him. There was nobody else who could do it—I don’t know what I would have done if he’d said “no,” but he immediately said, “Yes.” I love him as an actor, and he’s more than a great guy—he’s a fantastic person. He’s a great actor–he usually gets these parts where he’s the silent type, but he can play anything.

We’re experiencing a new wave of Danish and Scandanavian film lately, with Nicolas Refn’s Drive, and Lars van Trier finding a creative second wind. How do you see the current state of Danish film making right now?

Arcel: I feel extremely lucky to be part of this generation. When I was in film school, we had the Dogma 95 wave, and a couple years after I graduated, it crashed and burned. Danish cinema was in a free fall after that—what a great time to get out and be a filmmaker in Denmark, you know? [laughs] But then I became part of the new genre wave that culminated with Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Now something new has happened, which I’m so thankful for. Now Danish films are traveling throughout the world, not just dramas, but genre films. Now Danish filmmakers have a shot at showing their films beyond Denmark.

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