“Anna Karenina” may be the high-profile period romance in theaters this awards season, but the Danish film “A Royal Affair” has something else going for it besides sumptuous costumes, a tragic heroine, and forbidden love: It happens to be true. Political intrigue in the court of 18th-century Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) and the adulterous romance between his wife, Queen Caroline Mathilda (Anna Vikander) and royal physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) may be unfamiliar to audiences in the United States, but it’s well known even to schoolchildren in Denmark.
“It’s a big responsibility when you’re doing a film where everybody knows the story. Filmmakers have been trying for 30 years to bring it to the screen,” says writer-director Nikolaj Arcel during a visit to Boston. Although Arcel’s resume includes a political thriller, an epic fantasy, and the screenplay for the original version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” historical romance wasn’t part of his oeuvre. With frequent collaborator Rasmus Heisterberg, a fellow graduate of the prestigious National Film School of Denmark, he spent a year researching the famous story. “We wanted to be sure to get as close to the truth as possible,” says Arcel, 40, in flawless English. It was only by giving equal weight to both the romantic triangle and the sweeping social changes that Queen Caroline and Struensee conspired to enact through the weak king that Arcel knew his story would resonate with modern audiences.