Danish democracy's astonishing origin story has all the makings of a world-class political soap opera. Rife with madness, adultery, decapitations and gorgeous costumes, the Oscar-nominated "A Royal Affair" revisits the saga of a liberal doctor who tried to launch a revolution from the inside out after infiltrating the court of crazy King Christian VII and his beautiful Queen Caroline in the 1760s.
Despite the juicy source material, nobody had made a movie out of Denmark's nation-defining melodrama until writer-director Arcel Nikolaj Arcel came along. Why'd it take so long? Arcel says, "Our main problem is that in Denmark we don't have a big history with period films, and whenever we do try to make them, they tend to be very stuffy and self-important. Investors worried that I would repeat that."
On the contrary, Arcel kept the pomp and pageantry to a minimum. Working within the constraints of a $7-million budget, he notes, "there was a ceiling to the amount of things we could do with this money. My only dogma was: I don't care about the historical trappings. The costumes have to be beautiful and correct, but the only thing I care about is the characters."
To do justice to the characters at the heart of the story, Arcel obsessed over his casting, starting with Mads Mikkelsen. The Danish movie star immediately signed on to play royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee after reading the "Royal Affair" script. Dr. Struensee, an enlightened man brought in to act as adviser to the mad king, works from inside the royal circle to steer a backward country toward a more progressive modernity. He also finds a kindred spirit in Queen Caroline and, as every Danish schoolchild knows, fathered her second child. The role required a performer of considerable gravitas, Arcel says. "If Mads hadn't said yes," he says, he doesn't know what he would have done. "It's almost like having Daniel Day-Lewis play Lincoln. You have to have the exact right actor."
Arcel had a much harder time locating a believable Caroline. "I auditioned almost every Danish actress in the country but couldn't find anybody from Denmark to play the queen. They were pretty good actresses, but the way they carried themselves, the way they spoke — it was too 'street.' There's a certain modern way of acting in Danish film and television that didn't work for 'A Royal Affair.'"
Enter Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Though she did not speak Danish, Vikander came across on her videotaped audition with one essential quality lacking in other performers. "There was something regal about Alicia," Arcel says. "Queen Caroline was born of blue blood. She'd been raised to become a princess. It turns out Alicia had been a ballet dancer before she turned to acting, so she had a way a gliding across the floor, almost floating. Not that she's a diva. She was a little bit of a princess."
"Royal Affair's" most volatile character, the king, who historians believe was probably bipolar, also proved difficult to cast. After Denmark's pool of established talent came up wanting, Arcel and his team looked at drama schools. There they discovered Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, a second-year student who'd never performed professionally in film or on stage. "Mikkel had a raw, primal quality," says Arcel. "He was willing to go out on a limb and try anything."
Modern Denmark lacks the ancient streets and castles needed to portray the period accurately, so Arcel filmed "A Royal Affair" in the Czech Republic, drawing on computer-generated imagery to flesh out crowd scenes and build out castle vistas. But for all its 18th century ambience, "A Royal Affair" challenges its characters to tackle issues that continue to bedevil 21st century citizens. Arcel notes: "This film depicts the Age of Enlightenment coming across Europe where you've got conservatives and liberals, you've got science versus religion discussion, you've got the age-old poor-versus-rich discussions. We're having those same debates in Europe and America right now. Let's be honest: We're still a little bit in need of an Age of Enlightenment."