What can we learn from the movie: ‘A Royal Affair’?

“I am one of you! I am one of you!” shouts Dr Johann Struensee towards the crowd, while being led to the executioner. The people of Denmark remain unmoved. His last desperate attempt to feel vindicated remains unfulfilled.

Thus ends ‘A Royal Affair’, a movie about Danish history in the 18th century. But it will be wrong to say that the movie is about Denmark or even about history. It is about life itself. What lends meaning to life? Should we aim to do good work because that may bring us recognition and reward in our lifetime? Or at least because we will be remembered after death and leave a legacy? But what if neither happens? What if we remain misunderstood — during our lifetime and even after death?

Dr Johann Struensee, a man of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe dominated by faith and oppression, gains neither. Destiny offers this small-town doctor unprecedented power. A chance meeting with the mentally disturbed king of Denmark lands him the job of the king’s personal physician. Along with being his doctor, he becomes the king’s most cherished companion, the one on whom king develops a childlike dependence.

Dr Struensee’s work was not all in vain

Once in the royal palace in Copenhagen, he charms most of the nobility and even the queen herself. The queen, a talented woman whose desires are frustrated due to her ill-fated marriage with the insane king and whose ambitions are thwarted in the hidebound royal Danish court, finds the perfect answer to her stymied life in Dr Struensee. Here is a man who is brave, charismatic, charming — more kinglike than the king himself. Among the faith-driven, oppressive Danish nobility, she finally finds an ally whose belief in freedom of thought and equality of men is more radical than hers.

Much like the winds of change that was sweeping through most of Europe that time, Dr Struensee injects a gust of fresh air in queen’s life — enabling her to find a vitality and purpose she had not known before. Together, they manipulate the king’s unconditional trust to gain control over the cabinet and to introduce radical reforms in the Danish society. Suddenly, Denmark becomes such a symbol of hope that they even earn the praise of Voltaire, the brightest light of the enlightenment.

Radical change always disturbs entrenched interests — and there are many people who are angry with the foreigner who seems to have suddenly become the de-facto ruler of Denmark. The nobility, the army and the other members of royalty plot his downfall. He hands them a big ammunition — his illicit affair with the queen.

Meanwhile, the queen, unable to take all the stress of secrecy and unspoken hostility of rivals, is about to unravel. She no longer enjoys the new dawn of enlightenment. She fondly remembers the first night she spent with the Doctor as the only happy time they spent together. Struensee still cares deeply about the queen, but he is intoxicated by the possibility of bringing about real change in society. No amount of hostility will deter him.

But the tide of history treats individuals with cavalier disregard. If the time and place is not right, no matter how right you are, you cannot bring about change. So it was not in the destiny of Dr Struensee to be the architect of the most radical humanist reform in Europe. The opposition was just too many and too powerful, while his position too fragile due to his supposed moral transgression. The people, on whose behest he launched the reforms, were easily instigated to hate him for being a foreigner and a libertine.

Soon, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the inevitable unfolds. Once the most powerful man in Denmark, Struensee is arrested, tortured and finally beheaded. His appeal to the people, ‘I am one of you!’ remains unheeded.

So was his work all in vain? Given that we are all grains of sand, and have very little ability to influence history, should we attempt it at all? What’s the point, if we are neither respected nor rewarded for that attempt? What if the tide of history is so much against us that we are actually vilified, or even murdered, like Struensee?

These are not theoretical questions. Sometimes great reformers are not recognized in their lifetime. Mikhail Gorbachev’s contribution to dismantle the oppressive communist regime is not adequately recognized by contemporary commentators. PV Narasimha Rao, the architect of Indian economic reforms died a lonely death, and remains an unperson in his party even after his death. Avijit Roy, an atheist blogger from Bangladesh, was hacked to death because of his attempts to free the society from the clutches of fundamentalism.

But these are just a few celebrated names we know. At least there is some debate about them. But there are countless people in history whose name nobody remembers, but who nonetheless may have contributed to the forward movement of mankind. Unlike Gandhi or Lincoln, they were not lucky enough to have ushered in history. But we must salute them because they remain our inspiration to do the right thing even when our work is not celebrated.

Founder, The Levelfield School. Writes on education and society.