Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Films: Little Things and Big Things

The year has seen films—very fine films, so I’m told—about hunting down a terrorist, or deftly orchestrating the rescue of foreign service personnel, or surviving the aftermath of a tsunami, or being stranded in a rowboat with a tiger. I want to see them all. But these are films about little things.

Well, most films are about little things. The purpose of art is to acquaint us with the things history leaves out.

Then we have Lincoln, which is not a film about slavery or war, so much as it’s about the character of a man. That’s the great triumph of Spielberg’s creation—it successfully limns the character of a very deep and troubled and likeable and moral man. It’s a rich and entertaining and inspiring rendition of a little thing—a man’s character—that had a profound impact on the course of history.

But if all these things are little things (you may ask) what, then, are the big things?

It seems to me the big things command center stage in the recent Danish film—short-listed for the Academy Award this year—A Royal Affair.

The title would suggest a back-stairs romance at a decadent court, with harpsichords and wigs and candles and carriages. There’s some of that, though the Danish court in the late eighteenth century didn’t have much bling.

Further interest might be drawn from the fact that the young Danish monarch in those days, Christian VII,  wasn’t playing with a full deck.

But the film—though it has a royal affair and a slightly mad king—is really about the Enlightenment. It’s about that group of progressive individuals, many of them men, who felt that torture was wrong, that censorship was wrong, that the financial perks enjoyed by the nobility at the expense of common workers and peasants was wildly out of synch with the value of their contributions to the greater good of the community.
In France they had a revolution. In Denmark, a few years earlier, a physician of enlightened convictions (played by Mads Mikkelsen, whom you may recall as the bad guy from Casino Royale or the good guy from After the Wedding) got the ear of the king, due largely to the fact that he was good at reciting Shakespeare. The king loved the theatre.  

Lest you imagine that A Royal Affair is some sort of didactic civics lesson in enlightened values, let me assure you that the romance between Mikkelsen and the young queen (played by the lovely Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) develops a good deal of back-stairs heat. Whether this is because of Mikkelsen’s personal charms or his collection of contraband volumes by Rousseau and Diderot I’ll leave it to you to decide.

By the same token, King Christian VII’s madness plays a prominent role in the course of affairs. It’s worth noting that Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, who played the part, won the Best Male Actor award at the 2012 Berlinale. He doesn’t seem to be totally nuts—just a bit weak and hysterical and waywardly libidinous. Mikkelsen may well “understand” him, and he certainly befriends him, though along the way he’s also charting a course toward personal power. That quest for power may well be inspired by pursuit of “the good.” Needless to say, it’s unlikely to come to a good end.

Wrap these elements together and you’ve got a film with far more grip and pull than Ridicule, The Madness of King George, Marie AntoinetteStart the Revolution Without Me, or La Nuit de Vanennes, engaging though those films, one and all, might be. 

And did I mention the story is true?

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