A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from Denmark is a period piece about the Enlightenment’s coming to the Scandinavian country, or shall we say Enlightenment Interrupted. It’s a well staged costume drama and the country’s entry for 2013 Oscars best foreign picture. And it’s all based on true historical events. Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Johann Struensee really steals the show. This rugged good looking character with his intellectual self-assured ways was the actual doctor behind the throne, if you will, and instituted many radical reforms (at least considered in those days, like freeing the serfs). It’s surprising given how we think of progressive Scandinavia nowadays, but at one time it was one of the most backward corners of Europe. Historical events are shown through a prism of three lives engaged in a romantic triangle. This is not a stuffy historical piece.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) is the kind of gritty drama the French have made a lot of in recent years, and I was reluctant to see it. I’m not into boxing or fighting and have had my fill of marginal characters that are one step away from the gutter. But I must admit that the (unlikely) story of a love affair between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) – an orca trainer at France’s Marineland - basically works and is absorbing. This is fine acting with a plot that moves aloing and it’s understandable why critics liked it.
Oslo-August 31st (picture above) by Joachim Trier of Norway was the best of the bunch – by far. This is an intellectually charged movie about a young man’s attempt at recovery from serious addiction. Yeah yeah, we’ve seen this before. But this is a man who actually has immense talents, comes from a literate family, and is among a circle of young intellectuals in the Oslo coffee house scene. As per the title, the film follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) through the course of a day walking around Oslo, trying to connect with friends, applying for a job at a highbrow magazine. But past events confront him all around, sending him back to his mental prison. Throughout there is an ongoing philosophical monologue on some of the big questions about life and living. It’s rare to see this kind of a movie and when one comes along you wish you could just pick it up like a valuable gem and put it in your pocket.
A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman) looks like it has all the ingredients for a very good picture. The cast is stellar with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir as long time colleagues in a world-famous string quartet. But things go awry when Walken (is he starting to be typecast as an older gentleman?) develops health problems, a rivalry breaks out, and an unexpected romance flourishes. It’s a little bit pat and almost farcical in places. And for some reason the sound wasn’t the greatest, making it difficult to hear Walken’s and Ivanir’s voices. I never got the sense the actors really threw themselves into this, and wondered if the film was simply an opportunity to generate income between more serious roles.