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KOCH

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In 1971 Walter Matthau played a lovable old geezer in a movie called “Kotch,” but if Neal Barsky is to be believed, that character had nothing on Ed Koch, the three-term mayor of New York profiled in this affectionate documentary. Barsky doesn’t totally ignore the tribulations of Koch’s time in office—or his serious self-inflicted political wounds—but generally underplays them in favor of an overall favorable portrait, and finds the elderly Koch’s curmudgeonly attitude a source of bemused admiration.

Koch came to power at a difficult time in the city’s history, of course—he won in a crowded field at a time of fiscal uncertainty, shortly after a citywide blackout and the rampage of the serial killer called the Son of Sam—and he proved a different kind of Democrat, not just sharp-tongued but conservative in fiscal matters while broadly liberal on social ones (though not sufficiently so for some segments of the traditional Democratic constituency). In some ways he was an early example of the “new Democratic” species that would come to the fore in the Clinton years. But his endless self-confidence, his puckish spirit and his familiar air (“How’m I doin?” he kept shouting to folks on the street) made him a pleasant change for a while, and though he antagonized some core groups in his first term (particularly by closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, which he had earlier pledged to keep open), he coasted to a second term in 1981 and won again in 1985, after stumbling in a run for governor in 1982.

It was during Koch’s third term that he found himself buffeted by scandals in which he protested he wasn’t involved but which tarnished him anyway (while burnishing the reputation of prosecutor Rudy Giuliani), and the film shows him suffering public outrage as a result. Barsky also gives substantial space to the mayor’s inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, which was thought especially odd because of persistent rumors that he was gay himself—something he had confronted during his first campaign against Mario Cuomo by a very public relationship with erstwhile Miss America Bess Myerson (though later saying merely that his sexuality was nobody’s business but his own). Those problems, combined with his deteriorating relationship with the African-American community, exacerbated by his frequently ill-thought off-the cuff remarks, prepared the way for his inevitable exit from the New York City political scene.

Observations from journalists and others are included offer assessments about Koch’s tenure in office, many mildly critical but generally tolerant toward a colorful character who made a newsman’s job easier. And certainly Barsky seems charmed by the octogenarian Koch, whom he interviews at length, easily extracting provocative remarks about the past and the present, and follows around on his more recent peregrinations. The brashness that made him a larger-than-life character in the eighties is still there, and the film exults in it. So too are the remnants of old battles: when it’s proposed to rename the Queensboro Bridge after him, several African-American councilman strenuously object. But when the deed is done, Koch accepts the honor with commendable grace, quoting from “The Great Gatsby,” no less, in his brief remarks. (Koch lived to see the finished documentary; he died early this year at age 88.)

“Koch” is obviously a selective piece of work, and it arguably goes a mite easy on its subject. But it offers an engaging if incomplete portrait of an unconventional politician who, for better or worse, was the controversial standard-bearer of a great city during a time of turmoil, tension and enormous social and political change.

A ROYAL AFFAIR (EN KONGELIG AFFAERE)

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A period costume romance is joined to an intelligent history lesson in “A Royal Affair,” one of the few films that succeeds in depicting what the Enlightenment was all about—and how its message of rationalism could easily succumb to the human passions that the movement so strenuously opposed.

Nikolaj Arcel’s film is essentially the story of Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772), a German doctor who became court physician to Denmark’s mentally unstable King Christian VII and gradually took over the reins of government, becoming the functional ruler for little over a year from December 1770 to January, 1772. A child of the Enlightenment, he was devoted to the thought of Helvetius and Voltaire and wrote anonymously in a vein similar to theirs; and now in a position to do so, he undertook a remarkable series of reforms that put Denmark, until then an extremely traditionalist realm, at the forefront of progressivism in Europe. Unfortunately, his mistakes—most notably an affair with Christian’s English wife Caroline Matilda, which resulted in the birth of a daughter claimed as the king’s—brought him down in a coup headed by the Dowager Queen Juliana Maria, and he was executed shortly afterward.

Arcel and his co-screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg construct Struensee’s story as a long flashback occasioned by a letter penned to her children by the exiled Caroline Matilda as she lay dying. This results in a film that joins a tale of political machination to a romantic tragedy. The two threads don’t always mesh perfectly, but the script juggles them with sufficient dexterity to make for a film that effectively dramatizes the clash between different eighteenth-century theories of rule while also providing a strong emotional element.

But though in the end its emphasis is on the doomed love of Struensee and Caroline Matilda, the real tragedy of the story lies in the fact that the doctor betrays his own beliefs by giving in to his attraction to the queen. In doing so, he surrenders his most fundamental Enlightenment belief, that a man must live his life in accordance with reason rather than surrendering to the pull of passion. One might note of the film that just as Enlightenment thought was eventually supplanted by Romanticism, “A Royal Affair” ultimately turns a narrative about a rational man into a sad story of doomed romance.

And it does so very nicely. It certainly looks right, with the Czech locations photographed by Rasmus Videbaek to serve as convincing stand-ins for Danish ones. And the cast is excellent. Mads Mikkelsen cuts a striking figure as Struensee, his long, dour face reflecting the doctor’s intelligence and his pained recognition of the danger his dalliance with Caroline poses to his governmental hopes. Alicia Vikander makes a attractive Caroline, who—in this telling, at least—is as progressive a thinker as her lover, her affection for him spurred when she borrows his copies of works by Rousseau and his ilk after her own have been summarily confiscated by the hidebound royal ministers, and becomes Struensee’s partner in pushing reform. (If their scenes together don’t quite set the screen afire, blame can be placed on the conventions of the time, which stifled too open an exhibition of emotion even in private.) And Mikkel Boe Foldgaard is touching as the erratic King Christian. Moving from childlike naivete to volcanic anger without missing a beat, he manages to generate sympathy for the mad monarch.

The supporting roles are equally well filled. Trine Syrholm is an imperious Queen Juliane and David Dencik appropriately loathsome as Guldberg, the primly pious minister who opposes Struensee at every turn. Thomas Gabrielsson and Cyron Melville are also fine as Rantzau and Brandt, the dissolute noblemen who initially induce Struensee to seek the post of court physician, only to come to very different ends—Rantzau turning against the doctor for personal reasons while Brandt suffers execution along with him.

“A Royal Affair” covers an episode in eighteenth-century European history that will probably be unknown to almost everybody who doesn’t specialize in the period (and Danes, presumably). But though it deals with what’s basically a historical footnote—an early Enlightenment experiment that failed—the film brings it to life with elegance and skill, if not perhaps the red-hot passion it’s aiming for.