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Royal Adultery Movie Battles Hate-Crime Story for Berlin Prize

Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in
Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in "A Royal Affair." The Danish drama, set in the Age of Enlightenment, is competing for a Golden Bear award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Source: Berlin Film Festival via Bloomberg

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Berlin Film Festival reaches its climax tomorrow, when the winners of the bear awards will be announced. Eighteen movies are competing. The jury is led by the U.K. film director Mike Leigh and includes actors Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jake Gyllenhaal.

These are my top four choices of the 15 competition movies seen so far.

Arranged Marriage

“A Royal Affair”: Queen Caroline Mathilda of Denmark (Alicia Vikander), who grew up in 18th-century England, had an arranged marriage to a king she hadn’t met. Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard) is a troubled soul, a buffoon in public and a pushover for his ministers. Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German man of the Enlightenment who tends to the sick and poor, is enrolled as the king’s physician.

Portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen (best known as the villain in the James Bond movie “Casino Royale,”) Struensee also becomes the queen’s lover. The king gives him with more and more power, until Struensee is effectively running Denmark single-handedly, introducing one startlingly progressive reform after another. It’s only a matter of time before reactionary forces unite against him.

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (who co-wrote the script for the 2009 Swedish movie “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), the film is based on historical events. With accomplished acting (Foelsgaard is fabulous as the fragile, unpredictable king), it moves at a cracking pace.

Subtle Script

The script is taut, subtle and erudite, capturing a brief, bright chapter of excitement and change. Casual mentions of Voltaire, Rousseau, Shakespeare and Malory mingle with plans for smallpox inoculations and sewage management.

Sadly, it may not be topical or innovative enough for the Berlin festival jury, which traditionally favors edgier fare. Yet this seems as good a time as any for Europe to be reminded of the values passed onto it by the Enlightenment -- freedom of the individual, rule by the people, social rights, the free exchange of ideas. It would get my Golden Bear.

Rating: ****.

Squealing Terror

“Just the Wind”: Tense fear stalks the woods in this Hungarian film about a series of attacks on Roma families living in primitive shacks.

A family has been shot in a racist hate crime and their pig is heard squealing in the forest by the terrified neighbors at night.

Bence Fliegauf’s drama shows a day in the life of another Roma family after the attack: Mari (Katalin Toldi) is juggling jobs to feed her children, her daughter is trying to focus on school and her father is sunk in an alcoholic haze. Her son is preparing a bunker to hide out while the killers are at large.

The movie is based on real events: Between 2008 and 2009, 16 Roma homes in Hungary were attacked with Molotov cocktails, shotguns and rifles. Six people died and criminal proceedings are continuing.

A sense of unease and foreboding builds up so tangibly in this movie that the violent end is unnecessary.

Rating: ***.

Lovers Escape

“Barbara”: An East German doctor in 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss) has applied to leave the country. After being arrested, she is transferred as punishment from Berlin to the provinces where she plans her escape with a lover from the west, whom she meets secretly. Initially she keeps her distance from colleagues, yet gradually her new environment -- particularly her new boss -- starts to draw her in.

Christian Petzold creates a strangely timeless East Germany with no stonewashed denim or unfortunate perms. It’s a compelling, quiet story of how duty and love can overcome politics.

Rating: ***.

Ski Robber

“Sister”: Set in the Swiss Alps, the movie contrasts the wealthy skiers at a resort with those eking out an existence by the main road below. Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) invests in a ski pass so that he can rob tourists of their equipment and sell it to buy groceries for himself and his older sister. His practical self-sufficiency belies a desperate need for affection.

His sister, played by a puff-faced Lea Seydoux, is incapable of holding down a job, is prone to drunken binges and hangs out with unsavory men. A dramatic twist halfway through the movie makes Simon’s plight even more heartbreaking. These two are among the more memorable characters of this year’s Berlinale.

Rating: ***.

What the Stars Mean:
****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
No stars      Worthless

For more information, go to http://www.berlinale.de/en/

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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