A Royal Affair is based on a true story of Caroline Mathilda, who is married off to Christian VII, a Danish king. The film opens with bright and noble Caroline in England as she is about to travel over to Denmark. Although Christian doesn’t turn out to be the perfect prince that she was hoping for as his lunacy only gains him disrespect and bad manners.
Whilst Christian is touring Europe, a common doctor and enlightenment idealist, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen) is appointed the King’s personal physician as the court struggle to deal with Christians’ outbursts. Meanwhile the Queen’s first child is born and she conceals herself from court and social duties as the King prostitutes other women.
The Queen is then constrained by the royal circle and is seen as unwell. However Strensee sees that she is just lonely and the two ride out into the countryside during the summer resistances and bond over Jean Jacques Rousseau. After Johann manages to save the heir to the throne, Carloine and Strensee fall deeply in love. Together the duo take control of the King, court and country and there ideals around freedom and the enlightenment unravel into all parts of society.
With the King freely signing any paper handed to him, Johann soon rises to power, however this starts to cause suspicion about the love affair, which eventually becomes his downfall and leaves the queen banished from court.
The plot takes many twists and turns alongside the usual pomp of a period costume drama. In the backdrop of the 18th century enlightenment, the film is less of a royal romp and more of a royal stomp about the search for freedom.
This search for freedom is primary seen through Caroline. At first we see her as a bright young girl in England longing to venture oversees and flee her parents. She enjoys being artistic but her books are soon taken away from her under Danish censorship and soon her enjoyment to play the piano is lost.
After this scene, Caroline’s freedom is slowly taken away from her, confound to the royal grounds and chambers. As Christian suppresses Caroline, ‘the world’s full of princesses, and I got stuck with the grumpy one,’ he says. The more time the Queen spends with Christian, the more she loathes him and her spirits soon becomes downcast. She quotes Rousseau, ‘man is born free but everywhere there are shackles.’ From Caroline’s perspective, Christian didn’t meet up to her childhood expectations and she wasn’t given a choice about the engagement she feels trapped by the King. However she understand that she can use her body to display power by producing an heir and freedom as she falls in love with Johann. As her relationship with Johann grows she becomes more satisfied in the bedroom and this liberates her from the mockeries of the King. Unlike Christian, Johann understands her frustrations about her circumstances, her ideas and intellect and this is what brings them together. Caroline allures Johann at the masked ball, ‘ this is the one ball where everyone can be themselves,’ she says.
We see Caroline is searching for freedom that she eventually finds with Johann as she is sexually satisfied but together with their liberal ideas they start working for the common good of the Danish people. This is contrasted with the self seeking, spoilt King Christian. Christian understands that as a king, the court and his family cannot manage his outbursts. His laughing out loud and his madness are explained, ‘I think most of his problems stem from excessive masturbation,’ says Reventlow, his parental guardian. In history, the King’s excesses also include drinking, sado-masochism and an official royal mistress, Støvlet-Cathrine. He plays the court clown, choosing to laugh out loud in inappropriate places, play fighting with chamber maids and ignoring the courts advice. This type of freedom that Christian expresses is selfish as his behaviour and decisions are on his terms and when he wants to express himself, regardless if this offends others.
This is displayed the most in the tensions and moral decisions made in court, we see three views, mindlessness, traditionalist and liberal. Christians outbursts and uncontrollable freedom are unhelpful to the council and his lack of compassion on the Danish people. He has no sense of what is right or wrong and blindly signs any order given to him. Juliane Marie and the court present a traditional and religious view. They are portrayed as having high moral standards, laws and a belief in God. Johann as an outsider represents the needs of the Danish people in the court and stands for equality, freedom and liberalism. As well as speaking for the people, Johann and the Queen ultimately want to be morally free from judgement, as the queen asks Johann, ‘Will the enlightenment set us free from divine punishment?’ When he is given power over Denmark we see him lifting restrictions on capital punishment, publishing censorship and education to all men.
Johann’s free thinking and reforms reflect a movement in wider Europe which is called the age of enlightenment. The purpose of the enlightenment was to reform society using reason, science and knowledge that predominantly took place in the 18th century. Johann represents the position that people should think for themselves as individuals rather than accepting the traditional values that were being communicated from the courts and the church. The enlightenment was mainly built up of scientists and philosophers and doctors like Johann. The film then makes the wider suggestion that all free thinkers of the enlightenment during this time period are atheists. However this is not the case, as German philosopher, Immanuel Kant was part of the moment and he affirmed his belief in God. He says, ‘[Religion should be] …. successively freed from all statutes based on history, and one purely moral religion rule over all, in order that God might be all in all. The veil must fall.’
Overall the film leads you to have empathy on enlightenment thinking as step mother Juliane Marie is told to ‘put her trust in god’ just as she goes to sign the order to banish Caroline from the royal palace forever. In the final scenes we are left to have compassion on Caroline as she writes to her children on her death-bed and Johann is executed for the affair.