By Mike Collett-White
BERLIN (Reuters) - The big surprise for many people watching "A Royal Affair", about Denmark's very own royal scandal of the late 18th century, was that it has not been turned into a film more often.
The costume drama starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen had its world premiere at the Berlin film festival on Thursday and is one of 18 pictures competing for prizes at the awards ceremony on Saturday.
Director Nikolaj Arcel admitted he played with the facts in his lavish production shot mainly in the Czech Republic, but that the basic structure of the plot was true to life.
The dramatic, real-life story centers around Danish King Christian VII and his unhappy marriage to English aristocrat Caroline Matilda.
Though the couple had a son, the future King Frederick VI, the queen fell in love with court physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German doctor whose influence over the king and country grew until he was Denmark's de facto ruler.
Struensee's affair with the queen probably produced a child, but his influence, illicit relationship and passion for enlightenment and bold reform made him unpopular with the nobility who maneuvered to bring him down.
"At one point I thought, 'why hasn't anyone done this yet?'," said Arcel. "It's such a fantastic, big story with so many emotions," he told reporters after a press screening.
A British film called "The Dictator" did cover the same period of Danish history, although it was released 77 years ago.
Asked why he chose to portray the king as mentally ill, Arcel replied:
"I'm a storyteller I'm not a documentarian. I know a little bit about him and many, many books have been written about him.
"Some say he was crazy, some say he was intelligent. The modern theory now is that he was a ... manic depressive and he had a lot of mood changes."
Arcel has likened his approach to that of Milos Forman in "Amadeus", the acclaimed but historically inaccurate movie on the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart told through the eyes of Antonio Salieri.
In "A Royal Affair," the king is played by newcomer Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, while queen Caroline is portrayed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.
Mikkelsen takes on the role of Struensee, a part he said he approached just like any other. He is probably best known outside Denmark for his role as villain Le Chiffre in the 2006 Bond movie "Casino Royale".
"I approached the film the same way as always," he said.
"I try to understand what's in the head of the director and what's in the script. I'd rarely seen a costume film that evoked any feeling in me. But when I was reading the script, I was really, really moved."
"A Royal Affair" is the 17th of 18 competition films to launch in Berlin, and bears striking similarities to the opening movie, "Farewell My Queen", in which Diane Kruger played Marie Antoinette at the outset of the 1789 French Revolution.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)