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May 31, 2013

Movies You Missed & More: A Royal Affair

Royal-affairThis week in movies you missed: "Hannibal" has been renewed! And, in its honor, I'm keeping right on with Mads Mikkelsen Month here at Movies You Missed.

Fear not, this Oscar-nominated Danish costume drama involves neither cannibalism nor sharp objects ... till the end, anyway. But it does demonstrate, like the show, that you might want to think twice about making this guy your trusted personal physician and the keeper of your mental health.

What You Missed

Much like Marie Antoinette, Princess Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander, Kitty in the recent Anna Karenina) didn't lead the carefree life you might expect of 18th-century royalty. Born in England, she was married off in 1766, at the age of 15, to her cousin, King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). He was mentally ill and more interested in courtesans than in his bride.

No wonder, perhaps, that Caroline began an affair with the king's doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen).

Together they seized the reins of the kingdom away from the erratic monarch and began issuing decrees aimed at reforming a conservative nation. Among Struensee's radical causes were universal smallpox vaccination, orphanages for unwanted children, the abolition of torture and preventing landowners from beating their peasants at their discretion.

Pretty cool, right? Not in the eyes of Denmark's nobility and clergy, who used the 18th-century equivalent of tabloid journalism to get the public on their side, distributing pamphlets that painted the queen as a whore. Things did not end prettily for the two lovers who attempted quietly to usurp a throne.

Why You Missed It

You may have caught A Royal Affair when it played for about a week at the Savoy Theater and a week or two at Merrill's Roxy, or when the Burlington Film Society screened it at Main Street Landing. If you missed it, like me, catch it streaming now.

Should You Keep Missing It?

I've felt burned by royal period pieces such as The Young Victoria and Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which seemed to be more about costume and interior-design porn than drama.

So A Royal Affair was a pleasant surprise. I don't know how closely it adheres to history, but it tells an eventful story with an active, likable heroine; well-fleshed-out supporting characters; and a genuinely harrowing denouement. On top of that, of course, it has all the costume and interior-design porn you'd expect.

While the romance between Caroline and Struensee was suitably intense and swoony, I was more struck by the well-drawn relationship between Struensee and the king. It would have been easy to caricature Christian VII, but Følsgaard does a more nuanced portrait of a young man who's geekily obsessed with Shakespeare and just can't handle social relationships, especially the one with his wife.

Struensee deftly offers the young king the unconditional support and friendship he craves, then uses him like a puppet to serve his own ends. It's not unlike Hannibal mesmerizing the mentally unstable detective who should be catching him; Mikkelsen has a way of making manipulation so low-key it's almost subliminal. (The dude who played the over-the-top serial-killer Svengali on "The Following" should have taken a few lessons from him.)

So even if you're rooting for the lovers and their Enlightenment politics, it's hard not to feel for the hopelessly outwitted king caught in the middle. His fate is a sad one, too.

Verdict: Meatier than the usual costume drama.

New in Theaters This Week

Kon-Tiki offers a Norwegian sea adventure at the Savoy. Jesse Eisenberg does some magic and steals some dough in Now You See Me. Will Smith plays a character named Cypher Raige in the new M. Night Shyamalan movie, After Earth. (Will the director of The Sixth Sense redeem himself? The name "Cypher Raige" makes me doubt it.)

New on Video This Week

Dark Skies, Lore and "Doctor Who," series 7, part 2.

Also, while we're waiting for local documentary A Band Called Death to come to Vermont theaters (which I'm told will probably happen in July), please note that it's now available on iTunes.

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