“A Royal Affair” is Denmark’s submission for the best foreign language Oscar is the true story of a queen and the love affair that changed Danish history. I spoke with writer/director Nikolaj Arcel and his co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg, who also worked together on the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy.
Caroline Mathilde was a member of the British royal family who was sent to Denmark in 1766 to marry a cousin she had never met, King Christian VII. He had severe mental illness (possibly bi-polar) and came to rely very heavily on his German doctor, Johan Friedrich Struensee. He and the queen fell in love and when he became increasingly powerful they worked together to bring about reforms that helped to usher in the modern era.
“The queen was bright and well-read. She loved the ideas of the Enlightenment and read a lot of books and had a lot of opinions on what kind of queen she wanted to be. And when she met the doctor who shared a lot of her ideas, very progressive, very modern, very radical for that time, they became soul mates,” Heisterberg told me. “They started to grow a friendship because of their common ideas and then they fell in love. It actually began as a meeting of the minds.” He and Arcel spent a year researching the history and relied heavily on the queen’s letters. “You can see how bright she was from her letters.” The king did not write but made “funny little drawings and cartoons. He wanted to become an actor. He loved the theater,” Arcel said. “He created the Royal Theater. He used the theater as a shield, a way to protect himself. And theater was the way he survived. In court, he sort of created a character he could portray. That was his way of surviving in this harsh environment he wasn’t cut out for. We found that so fascinating. He’s a complex character because he wasn’t just raving mad. When the doctor arrives, he understood him and that helped him become a better, more sane person. Their friendship is part of the story as well. When the doctor falls in love with the queen it’s not only forbidden. It’s a betrayal of the friendship as well.”
The queen was a devoted mother. “She breast-fed, which was very radical for the time,” Arcel said. “She wanted her son to have fresh air and be outside playing” despite the objections of those around her. She was influenced by Rousseau. “Usually these things just end with –she felt isolated and felt unhappy. But in her story this dream guy arrives and not only does she fall in love with him but he was someone who was willing to change the country and even make the king a better person.”
“The challenge for us was to make a cross-breed between a romance and a political drama. Using the theme of freedom became the key for us,” Histerberg said.