Interview: Nikolaj Arcel, director of ‘A Royal Affair’
The award-winning historical epic is Denmark’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar
I’m a sucker for movies about 18th century European royals. Throw in stunning locations, a glittering production design, corrupt political machinations, a young queen’s dangerous and shocking infidelity, some trademark Scandinavian moodiness, and a certifiably crazy king, and I am completely in. Writer/director Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the screenplay for the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” recently won a Silver Bear (with co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg) for the screenplay for his new movie, “A Royal Affair,” one of the most lavish films ever produced in Denmark. The film that tells the true-life story of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard, who won the Best Actor prize in Berlin for this role) and his English Queen, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander, who also appears as Kitty in Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” starring Keira Knightley). Caroline ends up having a passionate love affair with her husband’s physician and trusted advisor, Johann Struensee (popular Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen). This is a fascinating story with none of the staid heaviness of some costume dramas. As Queen Caroline and Dr. Struensee carry on their passionate affair under the king’s nose, they also inch the insane ruler towards the encroaching Enlightenment. Ultimately, however, the couple gets trapped and betrayed by palace politics.
I spoke to Nikolaj Arcel in Los Angeles.
MSN Movies: I feel like such a stupid American since I’d never heard of this incredible story before I saw your film.
Nikolaj Arcel: Oh, don’t worry, you’re not stupid! They didn’t even know about this story in Germany and Johann Struensee was German! I don't think anyone knows about it except Danish people.
So Danish kids grow up learning about these people in school?
Oh yes, all Danes know about it. It’s a very famous story and has been for many years. There have been many fictionalized books about Christian and Caroline but this is the first Danish film.
Is there any disagreement among scholars about Christian VII’s mental issues?
No. He was always called the “Mad King,” but we did a huge amount of research to be able to show him in all his complexities. We didn’t just want another crazy king story, we wanted to find out who he really was. We spent about a year just researching this guy—presenting a fuller picture of the king was probably our greatest achievement.
Is there an accepted diagnosis today of what he was suffering from?
We can’t know for sure but I read a lot of witness accounts that said he was prone to long periods of apathy and bad moods followed by periods of great activity. He was probably manic depressive.Combine that with a lot of repressed anxiety issues and the fact that he never really wanted to be king. His real ambition was to be an actor! He had to perform all of these official duties he wasn’t really interested in from a very young age. Also, and we didn’t have time to get into this in the film, but as a child he was brought up very strictly and was often beaten up. That alone could have affected his adult behavior.
I assume there was nothing set up back then to deal with the sanity of a ruling monarch.
No, there wasn’t, but a lot of people in his court took advantage of him because he was so weak. In many ways he was just a puppet.
The production design of the film is just gorgeous. How obsessed were you with historical accuracy? Were there experts on set worrying about earrings that were more appropriate for the 1780s than the 1760s?
Not at all. I had this rule that sort of applied to every aspect of production. I started out by saying that I didn’t want to do a stuffy historical piece that is objective and dusty. If I was so worried about “getting everything right,” I knew it would be easy to get obsessed with those things and I was way more interested in getting close to the characters and their emotional lives and all the political stuff that was going on. We knew we had to be correct, of course, we couldn’t just do something crazy with the costumes or wigs or sets, but we decided not to be too anal about it! But I have to say, the historians who have seen the film in Denmark have not had a single issue with anything we did.
That must be a relief. I can imagine people screaming that the wigs were an inch too short for the 1760s, or something like that!
Yeah! You know, we did have one thing—it’s sort of a funny story that I’ve never told anyone. This woman called me, and she was very agitated. I have no idea how she got my number. She said “I just saw your film, and it was lovely, but I have to tell you, when they were walking in the park, I could hear this bird (she named some bird, I can’t even remember what it was) and that bird was not in Denmark at that time.” (Laughs.)
Wow, if that’s your worst historic mistake, you’re good! At two hours and twenty minutes, this is a relatively long film. Were you under any pressure to make it shorter or is that more of an American quirk?
No, I did get a little of that pressure! But you know, many American films are that long. My idol when I was a kid was Steven Spielberg and I don’t think he’s ever done a film that was under two hours! Ultimately, I think that if you do an epic, then do an epic—go all the way! I hope that when it’s over people are happy that they went on this journey and aren’t thinking about how long the film was!
There are so many threads you could have pursued in this story that it could have been twice as long! Did you ever think of doing it as some kind of much longer mini-series?
Yeah, that would’ve been an interesting option. There was a lot of stuff I had to cut out while I was writing it. So many things happened to these characters and there were even some minor characters involved in their story that I had to cut completely out because there just wasn’t room.
How has Queen Caroline fared in the court of public opinion? Do people have sympathy for her today or is she seen as the “Great Whore” like Anne Boleyn was?
For a long time Caroline Mathilde was thought of as a traitor by the Danish people. But that’s changed. In our research we found some letters and aspects of her life that hadn’t been known before that showed many positive aspects of her character.
But her affair with Dr. Struensee was always public knowledge?
Oh yes, that’s how they were able to topple him from power. But later on Caroline was forgiven and during the last century historians started to tell the story a little differently. Maybe Johann wasn’t such a bad guy after all, because all these changes he was making were actually really good ones for Denmark. The problem is he was ahead of his time. For a long time Caroline was thought of as something of a “dumb blonde,” just this young girl who fell in love. But now we know that she was extremely bright, very well educated, she was writing all of these fantastic letters to her family back home, she was a student of the Enlightenment. We took all that into account in the film.
Is the fact that she wasn’t executed for her infidelity because of the intervention of her family in England?
Yes, her brother, “Mad King George,” helped her at the time. But she would never would have been executed, she was the queen.
Tell that to Anne Boleyn!
Ha! You're right about that! They made this diplomatic deal—Caroline never went back to Britain and she never saw her children again. And sadly, she died very young of natural causes. She was only 26.
I was amazed at how much your actors looked like the people they were portraying. Especially Mikkel Følsgaard as the king.
I think we were right on target with him.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen any portraits of the queen, though.
Okay, when you do see them you will probably retract your statement! In real life, Caroline Mathilde was a big, big woman with blonde hair! I have to confess—we wanted a pretty actress to play this very romantic part. (Laughs.) Caroline was not considered ugly at the time, she was thought of as charming and even sexy. There are a lot of accounts of her milky white skin and so forth. But let’s just say she looked nothing like Alicia Vikander!
Do you have any worries that American audiences might not “get” this story as well as Europeans?
You know, it’s funny—to a certain extent I think American audiences get it even more than other audiences do.
Because of the politics, all the discussion about the Enlightenment, the battle between science and religion. A lot of these issues are still being discussed in this country, even in the recent elections! Some of the ideas in the film are pretty relevant today. I have to say that the American audiences that I’ve seen the film with so far at various festivals have completely understood every aspect of the film. I’m very pleased with that!
And now you’re Denmark’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. How do you feel about that? I assume you’ll attend the ceremony if you get nominated?
Do I have to answer that? To be honest, I would love it if we ended up getting nominated! I would think it was one of the finest nights of my career! At the same time, for me those kinds of things are more about the pleasure of the actual night—your peers giving you a pat on the shoulder. You just have to be happy about that. Enjoy it and move on!
I was reading about Queen Caroline’s daughter, Princess Louise Auguste. I think she deserves a film of her own!
I agree with you—she does! I might do it, actually. I’m looking at a novel right now that was written about her.
I can’t believe she had an affair with HER doctor! Just like mama?
I know! There’s something almost Freudian about it, isn’t there?
“A Royal Affair” is currently playing in select cities.