Film: Storming the Gates

Social change was a topic that took up a lot of airtime and column inches during the political campaigns leading up to last November’s presidential elections, and the same is most definitely true about the entertainment industry as Tinseltown undergoes its own campaign cycle.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a wordy but consistently absorbing procedural that chronicles the passage of the 13th Amendment, currently leads the Oscar race with a head-turning 12 nominations. In a surprising turn of events, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck were left out of this year’s Best Director race, but their respective films, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo delve into U.S.-Middle East relations with taut, ripped-from-the-headlines tenacity. The latter film, a big winner at last Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, is still the movie to beat for the industry’s top prize, even though from where I’m sitting, Affleck’s apolitical political thriller isn’t quite in the same league as its two main rivals.

But before I allow these heavily hyped, awards-bait titles hog the spotlight, let’s move on to two lesser known Oscar nominees arriving in South Florida theaters this weekend that offer differing perspectives on the obstacle-filled road to bring about fiercely fought paradigm shifts to the status quo.

If you ask Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German doctor played by Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) in the Danish costume drama/wannabe bodice ripper A Royal Affair, lasting social reform is best achieved from within the system. The idealistic medic, who was raised by a theologian, has such an opportunity in the late 1760s, when a Danish count recommended him to his country’s current monarch, the mentally unstable Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, channeling Amadeus-era Tom Hulce), to become the king’s physician. An immature loose cannon with a reputation for decadent excess and a propensity to let his conservative cabinet do the heavy lifting policy-wise, Christian nevertheless connects with Struensee, who takes advantage of his position as his new buddy’s right arm to apply Age of Enlightenment principles to an actual monarchy. During a 16-month period, Struensee was responsible for, among other things, abolishing capital punishment for theft, banning the slave trade in the Danish colonies, and putting a stop to censorship of the press. (That last accomplishment would come back to bite him in his noble derrière.)

Interesting stuff, no? Well, it would have been, if A Royal Affair had focused more on Struensee’s political feats. Unfortunately, the film is saddled with a framing device that reconfigures it as an erotic romantic triangle. Director/co-screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel has opted to tell the story from the point of view of Caroline Mathilde (Kristen Stewart doppelganger Alicia Vikander), the English princess who was pimped off to Denmark to be queen to Christian’s mad-hatter ruler. (The bulk of the story is told in flashback by an older Caroline as she writes a letter to her children.) Her mom’s advice? Seduce the king, give him a (male) heir, and all will be fine. There’s nothing wrong with spicing things up with some titillating palace intrigue, but Arcel’s just no good at it.

The film’s titular liaison takes place between Struensee and the young queen, who has entered into a loveless marriage with a party boy who’s more than a little cuckoo. Their courtship is so corny that it turns A Royal Affair into A Royal Telenovela. You’re not witnessing two lovebirds swept up in the throes of passion as they succumb to the pleasures of the flesh, because the loud and steady crank of Arcel’s story-spinning wheels prevents their romance from building up much heat. From a narrative standpoint, the affair in A Royal Affair merely serves as a means to an end. Is the movie still engaging? It is, but the characters are caught in a tug of war between the Enlightenment-comes-to-Denmark yarn Arcel wanted to make and the tepid love story he felt obligated to churn out. It’s Masterpiece Theater for atheist progressives, and it could have been so much more than that.

“You have a flair for drama, my dear queen,” says Christian VII to his spirited bride during an early scene in A Royal Affair, but he could also be referring to the brave, confrontational souls who took to the streets with their iconic “Silence = Death” signs when it became clear to them the U.S. government would not be taking significant steps to combat the spread of AIDS. Welcome to the nightmarish scenario director David France portrays in his mesmerizing documentary How to Survive a Plague, a raw, blistering account of the role played by members of the advocacy group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in turning what was initially a death sentence into a treatable chronic disease. “Dying of AIDS” was replaced in many cases by “living with HIV.”

But before things got better for those who tested positive for the virus, the outlook was indeed very, very grim. Dr. Barbara Starrett, an internist who was at the forefront of medical treatment of AIDS patients, recalls the huge black trash bags where hospitals put early AIDS-related fatalities. Playwright Larry Kramer puts it more bluntly: “40 million infected people is a fucking plague.” France has amassed sensational vérité footage that gives viewers a front-row seat to the meetings that shaped the media-driven street theater that would become the group’s trademark, and admittedly, early portions of France’s comprehensive film do feel like judiciously selected home video clips.

The director, an investigative reporter and nonfiction writer making his filmmaking debut, wisely keeps talking-head interviews to a minimum, and following an occasionally rambling but never less than gripping first half, How to Survive a Plague takes off, and the footage of ACT-UP’s demonstrations alone are worth the price of admission. The film also chronicles how members like film archivist Mark Harrington came up with a glossary of terms in their efforts to understand how the disease manifested itself. If there is anything the film skimps on is a more detailed description of how ACT-UP was created. France nevertheless includes how fundamental differences of opinion caused several members to split off and start their own think tank.

You come to care so much for the courageous – and highly opinionated – men and women France interviews that you dread finding out their fate, but this is where How to Survive a Plague is uniquely empowering. “Like any war,” former JP Morgan bond trader Peter Staley points out, “you wonder why you came home.” Present-day glimpses of the survivors, like Staley, during the film’s final 15 minutes serve as a richly rewarding conclusion to a rough-around-the-edges film that pays homage to these tireless activists by refusing to dilute their anger.

How to Survive a Plague, which screened last October at O Cinema, returns to South Florida this weekend only at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (www.mbcinema.com). A Royal Affair starts Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com), O Cinema at Miami Shores (o-cinema.org) and Tower Theater in Little Havana (towertheatermiami.com).

About Ruben Rosario

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