A Royal Affair's political scandal rocks 18th-century politics

Mads Mikkelsen stars in the compelling Danish costume drama

Lately, the U.S. government's every brush with a debt ceiling or a fiscal cliff leads to the kind of ugly, wearying standoff that could make citizens long for the relative simplicity of a monarchy. But the Danish costume drama A Royal Affair throws cold water on anyone's nostalgia for a king, while exploring a sex scandal that personalizes the political in intriguing ways.

The audience views the late 18th century from the perspective of Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), the English-born bride of Denmark's young King Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). Caroline swiftly discovers that her marriage won't be the stuff of fairy tales, as Christian suffers from bouts of mental illness that make him a slave to his appetites and impulses, like a spoiled teenager with rage issues. Christian discovers a steadying companion in Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a country doctor and admirer of the Enlightenment's dawning principles of freedom.

Powerfully attracted to each other both physically and intellectually, Caroline and Johann fall in love and persuade Christian to abolish censorship and institute social reforms. Carrying on an illicit affair while creating powerful political enemies might be the very definition of tempting fate, especially when the Danish court includes a scheming dowager (Trine Dyrholm). When the lovers consider reinstating censorship to prevent the spread of scurrilous pamphlets about themselves, The Royal Affair illustrates how actually governing can prove messier than simply imagining a better system.

The actors engender sympathy for their roles without letting them off the hook for their reckless behavior. Caroline and Johann seem doomed to walk into a trap of their own construction. Vikander conveys the queen as a bright, passionate woman who lacks the maturity to follow her better judgment. Mikkelsen, who memorably played James Bond's bleeding-eyed adversary in Casino Royale, conveys Johann's warring thoughts with the subtlest changes in expression. Følsgaard makes a remarkable screen debut that reveals how the king, despite his bouts of terrible behavior, wants to be more than he actually is.

A Royal Affair lasts more than two hours and sets the kind of deliberate pace audiences might expect from old-school Oscar bait. Nevertheless, the filmmakers clearly appreciate both the sweep of history and the juicy aspects of the story, which at times resembles the political and sexual brinkmanship of "Game of Thrones," without quite the same levels of violence and nudity.

A Royal Affair Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Stars Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander. Rated R. Opens Fri., Dec. 7. At Sandy Springs 8.