For the first 15 minutes of this otherwise well-tempered costume drama, the experience is more déjà vu than time travel. Smudging the fine line between allusion and rip-off, A Royal Affair opens with young Caroline on the eve of meeting the foreign king she has been betrothed to. In other words, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette all over again; when she finally greets her bonkers new beau, the film veers closer to The Madness of King George.
But the movie swiftly achieves its own momentum and spice with the entry of Mads Mikkelsen, a heartthrob Danish actor most Americans know solely as the Bond bad guy with the bleeding eye in Casino Royale. Mikkelsen plays Johann, a young physician who dreams that the Enlightenment will sweep away the predatory aristocracy. Unfortunately, he ends up becoming a sometimes-sympathetic house physician to the nutty king. But one glimpse of Queen Caroline, who shares his secret passion for reading Rousseau, and it’s off posthaste to both adulterous sheets and dreams of humanist revolution.
What’s exhilarating about this rather conventionally framed piece of romantic historicity is the depth of detail. When reforms actually start to happen in the formerly rotten state of Denmark, Johann and Caroline get a fan letter from Voltaire, which apparently was the 18th-century equivalent of meeting a Beatle. Somehow, though, such frenzies don’t trivialize the crucial bits of history, and the lovers manage to seem both noble and caught up in patterns that grind exceedingly fine. Maybe it will remind you of a lot of other movies that push the boundary between bodice-ripping and philosophizing, tracing the many ways in which power corrupts and corruption empowers. But that wears off quickly as we’re swept up into a time when just thinking and talking about being human was radical and strange.