Back in 1934's "The Scarlet Empress," Marlene Dietrich took her cheekbones to a fictional Russia, married the half-witted grand duke and became Catherine the Great. In Danish director Nicolaj Arcel's splendid "A Royal Affair," the most splendid cheekbones on view certainly belong to the amazing Mads Mikkelsen, but the story follows the Josef von Sternberg template.
In 1766, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a sister of England's King George III, travels to Denmark to marry her cousin, King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), and become the queen. She's a cultivated and accomplished 15-year-old, as well as an intelligent girl, who nevertheless has no idea what's in store for her. Christian is not just difficult and infantile, but insane. Like Catherine the Great, Caroline is supposed to improve the bloodline. It's not going to be easy.
Her personal salvation comes via Johann Friedrich Struensee, a man of the Enlightenment, the king's physician and, as played by Mikkelsen, a character of seductive intelligence and animal magnetism. Mikkelsen, whose roles have ranged from a one-eyed Bond villain ("Casino Royale") to Igor Stravinsky ("Coco & Igor") to a primordial Norse gladiator ("Valhalla Rising"), is an international star despite his reckless choice of characters. Struensee would be any actor's safety role. He's a man who gives companionship to Christian, learning and love to Caroline and -- because of his influence on the king -- a progressive government to the people of 18th century Denmark. He undertakes a kind of velvet revolution with the cuckolding Caroline at his side. You can see tragedy coming a mile away.
Framed by the letter Caroline writes her children in 1775, the year of her death, "A Royal Affair" is lushly adorned and photographed. The acting is uniformly first-rate. With its classic contradictions and flawed characters, the film's melodrama would be worthy of von Sternberg and Dietrich.
At the same time, the film tells an intimate story with an enormous amount of grace.
PLOT A young princess from England marries the insane king of Denmark and falls for his learned, enlightened doctor. (In English and Danish with English subtitles)
RATING R (sexual content, some violent images)
CAST Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard
BOTTOM LINE Smart, beautifully made, a bit overlong but fiercely absorbing