If David Petraeus is seeking to escape his marital woes at the multiplex this month, he’ll have to choose carefully. Best to steer clear of Anna Karenina. It’s the season’s most exquisite costume drama, and Keira Knightley has never looked lovelier, but it’s still the story of an affair that turns into a train wreck. Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director over an extramarital romance, may also want to avoid Hyde Park on Hudson. This light confection about president Franklin Delano Roosevelt entertaining British royalty may seem harmless, but FDR’s knack for blithely cheating on his wife without missing a beat would make a modern philanderer envious. If Petraeus hopes to soothe his soul with a cathartic blast of Beethoven, A Late Quartet may look like just the ticket. But not so fast: it’s about a famous string quartet that becomes unstrung by one member’s affair and another’s adulterous fling. Even 18th-century Copenhagen is not a safe escape. In A Royal Affair, Denmark’s queen betrays her king with his doctor, a heroic civil servant whose free-thinking behaviour costs him his head.
The holiday movie season is awash with sobering tales of adultery in high places. In each of these four films, sexual betrayal results in someone getting hurt, if not killed, but the cheating lovers are portrayed with glowing empathy and affection. Even if they’ve doomed themselves by following their desires, they seem nobler for it—true to their passion, if not to their mates.
In Hyde Park on Hudson and A Royal Affair, infidelity is complicated by affairs of state. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, FDR is preparing to host the first visit of a reigning British monarch to America at his country home in upstate New York when he strikes up an affair with his distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney). Portrayed with cavalier charm by Bill Murray, Roosevelt is a benign womanizer who can take anything in stride, even though he was crippled by childhood polio.
His tryst with Daisy begins as an old friendship rekindled with benefits. But from its indecorous debut, he’s the one reaping the benefits. Daisy comes to realize she’s just FDR’s latest distraction, like another specimen in his stamp collection. The forlorn mistress is further marginalized as the story’s axis shifts to the fish-out-of-water comedy of the discombobulated King George VI and Queen Elizabeth being served hot dogs at a presidential picnic. Murray’s Roosevelt emerges untarnished, displaying an avuncular grace likely to turn Oscar’s head.
A Royal Affair, Denmark’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film, presents a more dire scenario of dangerous liaisons—a turning point in Danish history where romance and politics combust on a Shakespearean scale. It’s the late 1700s, and Denmark is ruled by the spoiled and petulant King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), who plays the fool and spends his nights in brothels while his courtiers run a corrupt feudal regime and his wife suffers from neglect. The king finds an unlikely soulmate in Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelssen), a dashing German doctor committed to the reformist ideals of the Enlightenment. As Struensee becomes the king’s personal physician, then the power behind the throne, he also warms the bed of Christian’s queen (Alicia Vikander).
The king is a bratty halfwit obsessed with Hamlet and, like Shakespeare’s Danish prince, his madness is half-real, half-fake. But he’s a pathetic figure, and so abusive to his wife that when his new best friend cuckolds him, he’s hardly a victim. Struensee is the tragic hero. As the doctor risks his neck to liberate both Denmark’s queen and its serfs, it would be hard to find a worthier case of betrayal. Yet by conducting an affair while attempting to serve as his country’s political saviour, Struensee seals his fate. It makes you wonder why such a sterling leader, like a Petraeus or a Bill Clinton, is willing to invite ruin by trying to have it all.
On second thought, maybe Petraeus could find some solace in A Royal Affair. It may be vindicating to place himself in a long line of fallen romantic heroes infamous for adultery, though he might want to slip into the darkened cinema solo.