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'A Royal Affair' That Grew A Danish Revolution


Time, now, another story you have probably never heard before; this one though, absolutely true.


NIKOLAJ ARCEL: There's this young, beautiful British princess. She's married off to a king in Denmark who she hasn't even met.

MARTIN: This is Nikolaj Arcel. He's a Danish filmmaker. And his latest movie is about the king of Denmark back in the late 1700s, and of course, that beautiful princess who is shipped off to a foreign land.


ARCEL: When she then arrives, she thinks it's going to be this stormy love affair, and she's going to be a wonderful queen of this little country. She then meets the king, who turns out to be - well, basically, slightly insane.


ARCEL: You know, he's very weird, and he's very childish - and has these weird habits.

MARTIN: This is Christian VII.

ARCEL: Christian VII is the king. And then, she's very unhappy. It's a very unhappy marriage, for a couple of years.

MARTIN: But then, enter Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee.

ARCEL: Who happens to come from poor means. He's like, a small-town doctor who gets to be the king's physician. And she falls in love with him, and he falls in love with her; and they have this illicit affair. They also sort of slowly gain power at the Royal Danish Court, and try to basically change the entire nation, in the course of a couple of years.

MARTIN: The movie is called "A Royal Affair." And it tells the real history of 18th-century Denmark. Arcel took on the challenge of putting the famous Danish legend on the big screen after writing the original film adaptation of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." His new film takes place in a tumultuous period of European history.

ARCEL: It was a fantastic, and very inspirational, time in Europe because the Enlightenment - it was a big wave going through Europe. But it hadn't quite gotten to Denmark yet. But the doctor was a big fan of the Enlightenment. And he had even written, you know, several enlightened scriptures and things. And the queen was a very well-read young woman. She was very bright. She had a lot of feelings about, you know, how to treat the poor, and what was the - sort of responsibility of the royalty towards the people of the countries because usually, the royals didn't really feel they had any responsibility.

MARTIN: Describe what was happening in Denmark, at the time.

ARCEL: Well, Denmark was a very conservative, controlled country. I guess the royalty had everything, and the rest of the people had nothing. And the king didn't really control Denmark because he was a little off his rocker.

MARTIN: He was disengaged, basically...

ARCEL: He was disengaged. He didn't really want to be king. He'd rather go to the whorehouses. So there was this council of old people who, you know, had these very conservative ideas, and they just did whatever they wanted.

MARTIN: And ultimately, the queen and the doctor, they co-opt Christian ...

ARCEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...in their plan to take control of the government. So it's really the three of them...

ARCEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...go about doing this. How do things take a turn? What happens?

ARCEL: They have a lot of opponents at the Royal Court, who don't think that all these changes they are doing to help the people of Denmark - they don't think that these ideas are very good. They think they're too forward-thinking. So it's starts to become a little bit of a struggle, you know, for power and ultimately, a struggle that they will have a very hard time, you know, winning.

MARTIN: This is a story that schoolchildren, I understand, in Denmark grow up with.

ARCEL: It is.

MARTIN: I imagine that that's a lot of pressure on you. (LAUGHTER)

ARCEL: It was. It was.

MARTIN: This is a story you grew up with; everyone knows it.

ARCEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why did you decide to take this on, to try to make this into a movie?

ARCEL: Well, I guess I'm a little bit masochistic, in a way. You know, there have actually been a history of great directors and great screenwriters, in Denmark, trying to tackle this story for 30 years. But they've all failed. And when I...

MARTIN: Why did they fail?

ARCEL: I think it's because it's a really difficult story to write because it not only has great romance; it's also a very strong political thriller. And then you also have the crazy king - you have all these various characters - and it takes place over the course of six, seven years. And this is an expensive film. It needed big costumes, big - you know, locations, horses, carriages; all these things - CGI. We were lucky to be the ones that actually wrote a script that was good enough to finance an expensive film.

MARTIN: Nikolaj Arcel - he's the writer and director of the new film "A Royal Affair." Nik, thanks so much for coming in.

ARCEL: Thank you.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.