Saturday, June 22, 2024

A Royal Affair or How To Represent Mentally Ill Characters

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The 2012 Danish movie A Royal Affair was quite a hit. This period drama won its directors, actors, and creative team 11 awards, and was nominated in countless prestigious festivals and award ceremonies (including the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards). The story is centered around the tragic love affair of Caroline Matilda, Queen consort of Denmark, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, her husband’s physician, during the very politically-turbulent 18th century. It has everything: gorgeous costumes, masquerades, secret-sexy times, power-angry-evil mother-in-law, conservatives white men, and rioting peasants (as summarized here). And even more, it features Alicia Vikander as Caroline Mathilda and Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee, both really beautiful and really talented actors.

Struensee and Caroline Matilda
Look how attractive they are! That should be illegal!

So, if you like period dramas and you haven’t seen this movie yet, it’s needless to say that I warmly advise you to do so. You will not be disappointed.

However this is not a simple review of a four-year-old film. No, this piece focuses on the aspect of the movie that puts it a step higher than other well-played and well-written period dramas: the portrayal of King Christian VII.

Christian VII was mentally ill (he seemed to have suffer from schizophrenia triggered by a abusive upbringing, according to a book written in 1906, but since I am no doctor and Christian is, not my patient, while also being dead, I will stick to general terms). Therefore, while still being king, he was unfit to rule, and one could argue that he spent is life being manipulated by the power-hungries of his court.

We might have feared that the cinematic portrayal of Christian fell in one of the two common clichés regarding mentally ill characters: nice simpleton (funny but inconvenient) or violent mean psychopath (unfunny but still inconvenient). Of course in both cases he would have been an obstacle for our heroes, and treated as a secondary character. It’s not the case. The movie is not centered around a duo but around a trio: Struensee, Caroline Matilda, and Christian. And all members of the trio are treated with the same importance and decency, mentally ill or not.

a royal affair trio
A trio! Not an happy one but a trio nonetheless, and, spolier alert, no-one you care about is happy in this movie.

And this, the portrayal of Christian, is one of the most important parts of the movie.

Because let’s be real, mental illness, like any other difference, suffers from a lack of representation or a misrepresentation in mainstream media. Especially in period/fantasy dramas, where representation of minorities seem to always be a bit lacking.

Choose your side: big bad psycho or goofy comic relief

Period/fantasy dramas (I include fantasy because it often works with the same rule as period drama, just with the addition of magic and having an open endgame) don’t like disability because it’s complicated. Since it has to work with rules different from the ones the writers and audience are living with, making the universe coherent is already a challenge. Indeed characters act, talk, and dress differently from us, but you still have to make them relatable. So if a character is mentally ill, making them relatable for what is considered the majority of the viewing audience becomes even more complicated. The writing must be perfect, and the acting on point at all time.

So most of the time mental illness is used as trope in period/fantasy dramas.

The vicious psychopath

Undeniably there is a kind of mental illness that scenarists adore, especially in period/fantasy dramas: psychopathy. What is better for your scenario than a vicious psychopath in a position of power? That way you can put as much abuse on-screen as you want, and come across as edgy while still being coherent! Because you know, the bad guy is *crazy*! There’s no other motive required.

Little sample of our convenient. violent, psychopathic villains.

Don’t get me wrong I like a good psycho villain as much as anyone. Commodus is a character that I appreciate, both well played and interestingly written. But still, in proportion, there are too many of these characters in period/fantasy dramas. And there are further problematic implications as a result of mentally ill people being primarily represented as dangerous and deserving death.

But this not the only way mental illness is portrayed in period drama. Let’s now give a round of applause for our second common category:

Goofy simpleton

Who doesn’t love the village idiot?

Take Showtime’s The Borgias as an example. It’s a good show but, as much as I like it, I must recognize that it’s a bit lacking in representation. Aside from Djem and the appearance of a Native American in one episode during the first season, it’s incredibly white. And disability is nearly invisible too. If my memory is correct, and if you don’t count the King of Naples and his son (the former probably has Alzheimer’s and the latter doesn’t fall far from the psycho trope), there is only one occurrence of mentally ill character in the entire show, and it was back in its third episode.

The character doesn’t have a line. He is presented by an old man (advisor?) as a suitor for Lucrezia, and we see him having an empty look and making uncontrolled head’s movements. The tone of the scene is in between horror for Lucrezia’s “lack of choice”, and humor, because the suitors are so below her. The only comment the character got is “perhaps it [the mental illness] runs in the family”. It’s a tragic sketch, but the tragedy is for Lucrezia. The mentally ill character is the funny element.

And another example, that you probably saw coming from miles away, is  Hodor from Game of Thrones. Hodor is, until the point where his tragic (and very problematic) backstory is discovered, either comic relief, or a convenient weapon while being warged by Bran. Every bit of what can be called his personality (loving to take warm baths for example) are turned into jokes. And therefore, until the end, Hodor was treated as a joke by the audience too.


Such subtlety; it almost feels like media creators are of the mind that only neuro-typicals deserve to be real characters because, you know, they are the only *real* people. The lack of agency for any charater with a mental illness across the board is appalling.

Christian VII: a character before everything

That’s why the characterization of Christian in A Royal Affair shines so much. Christian is written as a character, not as trope. A character whose tragedy strangely mirrors Caroline Matilda’s. Let’s have a better look at what makes Christian an amazing character.

Interests and personality

The first thing that we learn about Christian is what was told to Caroline Matilda about her husband before she met him. It was said that Christian is charming, very cultivated in art and literature, and even likes acting. While we can discuss the first affirmation and ironically appreciate the lack of reference to his illness, all of the above is true.

christian gif 1His love of theater is particularly on display. He quotes plays by heart numerous times (interrupts plays too), and seems to genuinely enjoy going to the theater.

His culture in art is not really visible, since we even see him not enjoying and even criticizing his wife’s harpsichord demonstration, his interest in literature is certainly canon in the movie. When he, and arguably Struensee, receive a letter from Voltaire congratulating him/them about the new enlightened politic, he is shown really pleased by the letter and is the only character to read a part of it out loud. Yeah, I know, he seems more interested by the more lyrical parts (since he “bla-blas” a good part of it) but still, he realizes what it means to have Voltaire praising you.

He also like physical activities a lot. On multiple times he is shown playing sports with Struensee, such as fencing or running. Yet I have the impression he doesn’t go hunting a lot, which is good. As a general rule, if you are a monarch with a disability and/or considered unfit to rule, I do advice you to avoid hunting. Accidents happen so fast.

He has a certain sense of humor. He makes fun of situations on numerous occasions (I am convinced that naming his dog as a member of his council is a magisterial “fuck you” to said council). As a matter fact you don’t laugh at him, you laugh with him, which makes a huge difference, especially compared against other mentally ill characters’s portrayals.

Here have a visual explanation of what Christian thinks of his council

Even if he is a bit slow about it, he is not blind to what happen around him: he guesses the relationship between Caroline Matilda and Struensee, and knows what his signature means when he basically gives full powers to Struensee.

And still the movie doesn’t shy away from his “darker” personality traits. He has violent outbursts (that can be linked to his illness), is easily jealous, has a big problem with sex, and doesn’t hesitate to attack physically or verbally people to fell better. Because he is a lost man.

Reclaiming his agency

One of the thing that both Caroline Matilda and Christian manage to accomplish trough Struensee is finding their agencies that they have both lost, or never had in the first place.

They are both thrown in marriage that they didn’t choose and, even if at first Christian seems more found of his wife than she is of him, they are both instructed how to act on their wedding night. Christian later adds that he doesn’t want an unfunny wife. They are both powerless and useless in the court.

The difference between Caroline Matilda and Christian is that he is even more alone than she is. He doesn’t have any friends (expect his dog) and because of both his position and his illness, can’t make one. Both of his parents are dead and he is left with a step-mother and a half-brother who will be more than glad seeing him judged incapable of ruling. This is where the movie stars: with a completely powerless and isolated Christian.

That’s when Struensee enters the scene. Struensee meets Christian when the royal advisors are looking for a new doctor capable of reducing the king’s mental breakdowns. Struensee heard about the job because two nobles want to use him to get back into favor at court. When they first  meet, Christian doesn’t want to talk to him and insists that he doesn’t need a doctor. When asked why the court thinks he does, he answers “because I love drinking, big-breasted whores, and I love fighting”. To that Struensee asks “How is this bad?” It’s the first piece of validation that Christian ever got since the beginning of the movie.

The conversation continues and Christian starts quoting famous authors and plays and Struensee follows him, validating him even more. And then by the end of the scene Christian looks like this:

christian Vii

It’s the first time we are shown someone taking interest in his interests, and therefore in him. The first time that Chirstian meets someone with the potential of making feel him less alone—having the potential of being his friend.

In a certain way that’s what Struensee is. And as every friend should do, he pushes Christian toward regaining his agency. While positioning Christian toward a political role, Struensee serves his own political convictions, but makes Christian an acting force in is own life once again. And he does that by talking to him and telling him that his passion (acting) can be his strength.

And it’s work. Just as much as Caroline Matilda finds a new reason to live, Christian seems to find new enjoyment in life and a will to not be ruled in everything by a court which hates him. The ultimate proof of that is the scene where the council, which has realized that Struensee is the enlightened influence behind all the new laws, decide to get rid of the physician. It’s Christian, and Christian alone, with great efforts, who manages to stop the arrest of Struensee; he dissolves the council while reaffirming his own agency (“I am king!”). This is a beautiful moment and Christian feels legitimately proud of himself. And both Struensee and Caroline Matilda show him that they are proud of him as well.

I wanted to hug him too.

If only the movie could stop there.

Being abused

The story of Christian is also the one of a person being abused by nearly everyone in his life, because he is in a position of weakness and vulnerability.

Since it’s evident that he starts the movie in that position and that his “family” wants him to stay that way (by making sure that Caroline Matilda and he don’t like each other, therefore ensuring that she will not help him), it’s harder to see him getting back into a cycle of abuse at the hands of those whom he trusts: Struensee and Caroline Matilda.

While discovering Caroline Matilda is pregnant with Struensee’s child, both characters start acting with desperation to protect themselves and the child. And even if they suffer from the situation, the one who pays the higher price here is Christian, the only one who has no saying in the decision making. So the cycle of abuse starts again.

He is slowly robbed of his agency by Struensee. He loses the social connections he has managed to gain because both Struensee and Caroline Matilda don’t have time or patience for him anymore. He discovers that his closest friends—his family—are lying to him. He is even abused physically when, frightened for her child safety, Caroline Matilda slaps him.

So there is no surprise when Christian starts once again to show signs of dementia and have violent outbursts—even more violent than what we witnessed at the beginning of the movie. He tries multiple times to communicate what he needs to both Caroline Matilda and Struensee, but he fails to reach them every time. It’s heartbreaking.

Ironically enough, his last personal proactive act is the one which seals the fate of Struensee and Caroline Matilda. And still, by saying to Struensee that he will not meet with the peasants because they want Struensee and not him, he is perfectly right, even if he doesn’t understand the consequences.

He is then tricked into not saving the people he cares about, and this is the final crime. He can’t rise up again after that.  The tragedy of Christian is the one of a man broken by ruthless people profiting off of his weakness. The others are responsible for what happens to him; his mental illness isn’t the cause. The broken man that we see at the end is the one who has lost everything (just like Caroline Matilda).


And yet, as you can see from this picture, he is the only one of our main trio to have a light of hope by the end. By being physically close to “his” children, he is close to the future and he is not alone anymore. There is a still a tiny hope for him, and that’s beautiful.


In nearly every way, the characterization of Christian defies completely what we are used to see when it comes to the representation of a character with mental illness. That’s why he shines so much in this movie: he has been written as a human before everything else. I just wish that this kind of portrayal were more common.


All images courtesy of Zentropa Entertainments.

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