Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) of Denmark is writing this letter to her children to tell them what those around them will not: the truth of what has happened to their country. Nine years ago she was taken from English nobility to be married to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), an event she looked forward to until she actually met him, and he turned out to be someone in her mind was a crude moron, more interested in whoring than having anything to do with official matters, never mind attending to his wife. Once she became pregnant, Caroline made it clear she wanted nothing more to do with Christian if she could help it...
A Royal Affair was based on a very famous book - in Denmark, that was, as pretty much nobody had read it outside of the country, yet once the film was made of it, the foreigners who caught it saw why it had been such a big deal, assuming this was an accurate adaptation. It was as much an endorsement of that celebrated Danish liberalism as it was a historical drama, and though some had issues with exactly how authentic it was in the finer details there was enough political fire in its belly to render what could have been strictly slushy royal romance material far more substantial. There was a hefty dose of heartstring-tugging as the Queen falls for the court physician, Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), but there was intelligence here.
It was a long film, and could test the patience of those for whom costume drama was not their accustomed port of call when seeking entertainment, but the sense of injustice it engendered in the viewer was enough to get all but the most die-hard reactionary thinking there had been a terrible lack of fairness in what was depicted, even if it did shine a ray of hope by the end - but only right at the end, practically alongside the end credits. The plot was complex, but not so much that it was impenetrable as the goodies and baddies were clearly delineated, so essentially what you had was a tale of political reform being foiled by the forces of darkness, or at least the forces of extreme and powerful self-interest.
Caroline gives birth to her son, but is resigned to a thwarted life, not even able to read the books she likes when they're banned under the draconian eighteenth century Danish system, and every time she makes a connection with someone (she truly needs a friend) they are taken away from her, leaving her in isolation. Is it any wonder when Struensee enters her life that she begins to find an ally as well as a companion, not to mention a lover? Not that he is against the King, far from it, as he becomes Christian's best friend, although not without entirely selfless reasons. Or rather, they are, but Struensee wishes to improve the lot of the population, and to do that he feeds the King a series of reforms to the conservative Council which they have to think up ways not to implement or risk losing their influence.
What it boils down to is the doctor, who isn't even Danish but German, trying manfully to do his best for society yet butting heads with the establishment who consider for example his drive to vaccinate the poor against smallpox as some kind of pie in the sky fantasy, or more dangerously for them a way of empowering the disadvantaged. When push comes to shove and the Council order Struensee deported, the King puts his foot down and replaces them with their hated adversary, but don't go thinking it's all plain sailing for the love triangle, Christian doesn't know he's part of that triangle for a start, and though for a while the people appreciate what is being done for them, the forces of the religious right and nobility see to it that the seeds of discontent are well and truly sown. Even then, the trio's fallibility moves beyond the King's borderline insanity, as the doctor and Caroline grow fatally overconfident, and find nothing is as simple as they thought. With its accumulation of intrigue, iniquity and oppression, A Royal Affair was really a gripping political thriller in disguise.