This article was first published as a Film and Bible Blog article in Culturewatch. © Tony Watkins, 2012.
For discussion material on this film, see my Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and additional questions for reflection in my Film and Bible Blog article.
The end of the eighteenth century was a time of great change in Europe. Enlightenment thinkers challenged the traditional structures of society, which kept all the power in the hands of the state and the church. The lives of ordinary people were shaped by customs, traditions, and oppressive laws, which kept the majority in servitude to the nobility. States like Denmark had strict censorship laws which prohibited people from expressing, or coming into contact with, any ideas contrary to official dogmas. Nevertheless, the ideas of thinkers like Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire spread around the continent, holding out the promise of freedom and reform to the people.
This is more than simply the background to the historical events depicted in A Royal Affair, but one of the main forces driving them. When Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) arrives at the Danish royal court in 1766 to be the wife of King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard), she is told that some of books she has brought with her are prohibited. We are not told what these books are, but given the way in which she is eager to borrow a copy of a book of Rousseau later in the film, it seems likely that they are Enlightenment texts. Caroline finds her new life hateful and imprisoning because of the erratic and wholly unreasonable behaviour of her husband. But, three years later, hope comes from an unexpected source: Christian’s new personal physician, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who is very much a ‘man of the Enlightenment’.
Struensee has arrived at court as a result of a ploy by two aristocrats – Rantzau (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) and Brandt (Cyron Bjørn Melville) – who had been banished from the court for their Enlightenment sympathies. They came across Doctor Struensee in Altona, a Danish colony in northern Germany, and had read some of his anonymous writings praising the French freethinkers. King Christian was not far away in Hamburg, too ill to continue on his grand tour of Europe, and Rantzau saw an opportunity: if Struensee could become Christian’s personal physician, he could use his newfound influence to get Rantzau and Brandt back into the inner circle at court.
Caroline despises Christian for his promiscuity and mental instability, and is hostile to the new doctor who encourages him. But when she spots his Enlightenment books partially concealed behind others on a shelf, she is intrigued. She takes out his copy of Rousseau and, quoting the most famous line: ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in shackles,’ asks to borrow it. So begins a friendship which eventually moves from shared intellectual interests and concern for freedom to become a love affair.
Love is the second main force driving these events, and – as so often – it apparently trumps all other concerns. Struensee is passionate about rationalism and about freedom, but when he decides that he is free to have sex with his friend’s wife, he has surely abandoned rationality. Brandt warns him of this before the affair begins: ‘Men ignore reason when it comes to beautiful young women. . . . You’re a fool. I like you a lot. I don’t want to mourn by your severed head.’ He and Caroline justify themselves in expressing their love because Christian has no interest in her, and because they believe that marriage, along with religion and other norms within society, detracts from personal freedom. Marriage certainly can take away personal freedom in a destructive way, when one partner is abusive, oppressive, or promiscuous, as Christian is. But properly understood and lived, marriage is about the voluntary surrender of some personal freedoms (such as the freedom to fall in love with anyone) in order to discover the greater freedom of a relationship of absolute trust, commitment, openness and intimacy. That is, in fact, what Struensee and Caroline want for themselves, but it’s not possible for them because Caroline is already not only married and the mother of a young boy, but married to the king and the mother to the crown prince. Their affair is not only inappropriate and ill-advised; it is dangerous to them and to the country.
Struensee also loves (in a non-sexual way) his friend Christian, and encourages him to take his position seriously and use his power to influence the privy council. The king begins to be committed to Enlightenment ideals, but his progressive ideas – and Struensee’s growing hold over Christian – bring hostility from the council, especially Count Von Bernstorff (Bent Mejding), and Guldberg (David Dencik), who is a confidante of Christian’s stepmother, the Dowager Queen Juliana Maria (Trine Dyrholm). This is not merely a conflict of intellectual ideas, but of morality. Guldberg complains that, ‘The king is letting himself be dictated [to] by a man of the Enlightenment. Denmark is one of the last posts in a depraved Europe,’ because for him the Enlightenment is about abandoning the moral principles on which European society has been based. For Struensee, however, the old guard’s grasp on power and its commitment to the feudal system is an offence against the dignity of human beings, who should never be ‘owned’ or oppressed by anyone.
Caroline reflects in a voice-over, ‘We thought we could have it all. We were naïve. For a while it felt like we could do something. Bring about change. Our group of freethinkers grew. And so did our ideas. But ultimately the council was too strong. And the harder it became, the more times he was rejected, the more despondent Christian became.’ When the privy councillors vote to have Struensee expelled from Denmark, Christian dissolves the council and declares himself and the doctor to be the cabinet. Caroline’s voiceover continues, ‘It was almost too good to be true. To see our thoughts and ideas become reality. We sat up nights. In the following months, hundreds of laws were passed. Everything was possible. Denmark had become a pioneering country admired across Europe. The Enlightenment had finally arrived.’
It was too good to be true. Struensee soon takes all the power for himself, demonstrating the validity of Lord Acton’s famous aphorism, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ From the perspective of around 240 years later, many of the laws initiated by Struensee seem self-evidently right: the abolition of torture, the abandonment of press censorship, introduction of a general inoculation, abolition of corporal punishment for peasants, reduction of the power and privileges of the aristocracy, and the end to ownership of peasants. The problem is in the way that Struensee sidelines everyone, even his friends, while grasping tightly to his power. In this he is doing just what his opponents had done, but, as with his love affair, he can justify it to himself because he feels he is doing something good. But Struensee has created something of a perfect storm for himself: the combination of deeply aggrieved enemies who have lost their positions of power, the exclusion of friends, the marginalisation of the king himself, and the continuation of an illicit affair in the royal palace. He has produced conditions which will inevitably lead to his downfall.
Arguably, Struensee’s biggest problem was that of the entire Enlightenment project: he had many right and proper moral insights into the state of society, but he failed to understand that freedom must always operate within limits. His opponents cared nothing for the freedom of the common people, and had the temerity to associate their oppression with religion. He cared immensely for the freedom of the common people and therefore set himself against the oppressing aristocracyand against religious faith. But in doing so, he cut himself off from the very thing that would enable him to understand what true freedom is. It can never be absolute; total freedom is ultimately destructive of goodness and even life, because it becomes totally self-seeking, riding roughshod over others. True freedom is a life lived in relationship with God, for which we were created. The Apostle Paul describes it in stark terms as being ‘slaves to righteous living’. If we turn our backs on that, we become ‘slaves to sin’, which ultimately ‘leads to death’ (Romans 6:16–18). Struensee’s precious Enlightenment had its intellectual and moral roots firmly in the Reformation of the two centuries previously, but while it continued working through the ethical implications, it abandoned the biblical foundations. Perhaps if Struensee had not accepted the false antithesis that reforming society required rejecting God, and had instead lived by authentically biblical values, he would have had the same passion for reform, but his thirst for freedom could have had entirely creative, not destructive consequences.