October 23, 2014

A Royal Affair: Costume drama with depth

As we look ahead to the spring movie season — when new, big films begin to appear — the Reel Dad checks out the nutritional value of some smaller films that are coming out on DVD. This week’s pick is A Royal Affair, a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

A young lady says goodbye to her mother, uncertain of what may be ahead in her life, unaware of the complexities she will soon experience. The princess realizes what people in her homeland of England expect of her as she prepares to travel to a Copenhagen to marry into Danish royalty. Little does she know how her inclination to help others, and her insecurities about herself, will ultimately make a difference to many and complicate her life.

While the Danish film A Royal Affair may look like a traditional costume drama, with lavish sets and costumes, it reaches beyond the familiarity of the sumptuous genre to explore issues that influenced the ages. While offering a predictable menu of marital tension, adulterous temptation and intrigue at court, the film examines political issues of the day that ultimately influence major reforms across Europe. Even if you avoid big dresses and powdered wigs at the movies, you will be intrigued by the world these decorations inhabit. A Royal Affair, despite taking place in the 18th Century, feels as current as today’s headlines about people struggling with economic challenges, social injustice and parental pressures.

When the young Caroline reaches Denmark for her arranged wedding, she quickly realizes her husband, the country’s King Christian VII, is obnoxious and disgusting. But a deal is a deal, especially between royals, and Caroline vows to make things work even though she and her husband do not share the same quarters, friends or interests. How surprising could it be that, when a dashing doctor arrives to serve the King, the young Queen quickly takes notice. And while their romance may take a lot of time and attention, they work together to initiate social and political reforms that ultimately end centuries of repression. Even though such relationships rarely last in costume dramas, they certainly entertain. And, in A Royal Affair, the traditional narrative we expect introduces new ideas that, ultimately, reach around the world.

Director Nikolai Arcel delivers what we expect from a costume drama without letting the traditions of the genre dictate its content or approach. While the characters wander through castles, what they discuss and experience reaches beyond traditional chatter. Arcel and screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg teach us the seeds of enlightenment while reconfirming the reasons for discontent. And if the resolution may turn tragic for the royals, we are entertained by how they live, think and talk, as they balance affluence and action.

From her first moments, Alicia Vikander adds subtle shading to her interpretation of the young queen. While she may wear lovely dresses, she wisely gives Catherine an appealing edge that makes her actions plausible. Her creative performance brings a focused energy to the film that other performers effectively match, especially Danish stage actor Mikel Boe Folsgaard who explores beneath the King’s ugly exterior to reveal the essence of his tragedy.

Someday, the movies may run out of stories that demand the costume drama treatment. Until then, films as fresh as A Royal Affair remind us how entertaining this genre can be, especially when we learn something while watching.

Film Nutritional Value

A Royal Affair

* Content: High. The romantic ambitions of a young queen ultimately change the destiny of a nation’s approach to social freedom.

* Entertainment: High. By carefully developing the characters, and reaching beyond the opulent settings, A Royal Affair tells its story in a compelling way.

* Message: Medium. While we do not expect costume dramas to be message films, this one differentiates in how it reveals what inspires its characters to act.

* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to take a journey to a foreign land during an interesting time is relevant.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While this is not a film for the family, you and your older children may find it interesting to discuss how the world has changed.

(A Royal Affair is rated R for “sexual content and violent images.” The film runs 137 minutes.)

4 Popcorn Buckets

The Movie Menu

What’s on your family’s movie menu this week? 

Choosing what films to offer is a lot like planning what meals to serve. And all the choices on television make it easy to savor something at the same time you nourish the mind and heart. This week, cable offers a range of nutritious movies. Here are a few choices:

As we finally begin to experience spring, take a look at these nutritious films available this week on cable.

For anyone who loves the history of Hollywood, take a fresh look at Mildred Pierce, the 1945 Oscar winner for Joan Crawford as Best Actress. This adaptation of the James Cain novel typifies what movie buffs describe as “film noir,” where the shadows are deep, the black and white photography is lush, and the characters are exaggerated. Crawford shines as the mother to end them all, domineering but hesitant, selfish but giving, driven but insecure. And when her daughter turns out to be more than she can handle, the mother dives into her work hoping what she can provide with money can overcome what she lacks in maternal instinct. Check out this classic at 8 p.m., Friday, April 5, on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

Mike Nichols’ humorous tribute to professional women, Working Girl, ushers in spring with its delightful mix of workplace humor, unmitigated ambition and shameless romance. Looking at this 1988 film today is like a return to an earlier world. The fashions are extreme, the hairstyles outrageous and the mores of the business world out of sync with how people work today. Or are they? Have we progressed that far? Or, today, do people in business simply hide their agendas more effectively? With Melanie Griffith at her most winning, Sigourney Weaver at her most humorous and Joan Cusack at her most extreme, kicked off by Carly Simon’s Oscar-winning song. Look for Working Girl at 8 p.m., Friday, on WE.

David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, unveils its new high-definition transfer on TCM at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 6. This Oscar winner from 1962 explores the work of T.E. Lawrence, a most controversial man at the center of some of the most meaningful moments in the history of what we now call the Middle East. Lean uses the widescreen camera to explore this most complex historical figure who some believe to be a hero, others dismiss as a nuisance, and all recognize as a significant presence in the early 1900s. No one making movies today could ever achieve what Lean delivers unless they resorted to a computer. And Lean does it the old fashioned way. When we see characters in the middle of the desert, we know Lean was there with his crew, transporting the water to keep the people and animals alive, always striving for authenticity in every shot he puts on the screen. The director’s passion for truth brings clarity to a most confusing hero. 

And, for a bit of fun this movie weekend, take in The Proposal, a simple comedy starring Sandra Bullock as an aggressive businesswoman who takes herself and her career a bit too seriously. That she manipulates others on her progress up the ladder is no surprise; that she eventually gets caught in a web of her own ambition is a movie staple; and that we enjoy every moment of the lunacy is a tribute to Bullock’s appeal and expert timing. Plus the amazing Betty White is on hand for some delightful scene stealing. Check out The Proposal at 8 p.m., Saturday, on FX.

Serving nutritious movies can be as easy as turning on the television. And be sure, as you watch together, to share what you observe, question and consider. Watching movies together can prompt valuable family discussions.