I'm generally not a costume drama man. Too many characters to learn, too much restraint and stuffiness, too much talking, too much prissiness and too many costumes. But A Royal Affair worked for me. While most of the elements I dislike are part of the sumptuous production, there are only three characters you really need to follow, and that made a world of difference to me.
The fact-based story is clear, crisp and interesting. I would have appreciated a bit more information on the mechanics of the government - watching a king being treated in a dismissive, near contemptuous fashion by his council, then later seeing him bark out orders to them during a hissy fit and having those orders instantly followed makes you wonder where the power lies in the palace.
The king in question is Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), a real ninny. His majesty has mental problems, we hear whispered. What we see is an obnoxious young numpty with poor impulse control used to getting his way. The council is used to using the king to rubber stamp their bad policies. Throughout the surrounding countries, the Enlightenment is being embraced and progressive thinking is in vogue. But Denmark in this part of the 1800s remains a backwards nation.
The king has been furnished a queen, beautiful Brit Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander), but the two don't hit it off. She arrives in Denmark in a sullen, pouty mood and her demeanor doesn't improve when she meets her betrothed. He doesn't like her either, preferring the rowdier, cheerful women he encounters while carousing. Their initial union consists of a hand job and a rape. The queen gets pregnant as a result of the assault and from that point forward, the two keep their distance, content to exchange sneers and the occasional insult.
When the king's behavior gets too far out of control, German-born physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, is recruited to control his majesty. Struensee is a free-thinker, but the Council doesn't know that. His recruiters do - they share his mindset and hope he can influence the king to drag the country back into the sunlight.
Struensee and King Christian hit it off - Christian develops a non-sexual crush on the reassuring doctor/father figure/pal, and indeed, Struensee gets the king to stand up to the council and force through some progressive policies. While the council seethes, Queen Caroline interrupts her slow burn long enough to fall for Struensee and before you know it, it's bodice-ripping time. To tell the truth, given the queen's personality, I suspect she insisted on her bodice being removed properly and neatly folded during her royal dalliance.
Obviously, getting frisky with the queen is not a smart thing to do. Poor Struensee, free-thinking with his crotch instead of his head. But I guess that's just what happens when your facial expression is almost always sly and your Mick Jagger lips have a built-in smirk.
As much as I appreciated the clarity of the story, I felt the production had a few missing pieces. Who enforces the king's edicts when what he demands infuriates the council used to controlling him? We see soldiers at the ready, but isn't there an officer who acts as liaison between the troops and the palace? And shouldn't we meet him?
The three principal figures from Denmark's history are interesting, but not terribly likable, which I found refreshing. A Royal Affair has lots of talking and very little action. It runs 2 hours and 17 minutes, which seems a bit long, though I couldn't point to what I'd edit. The subtitles may put some viewers off, but you're more sophisticated than that, aren't you, idealized reader?