You've just been served by Judge William Lee.
"My whole life, I aspired solely to become a millionaire."
Director Jirí Menzel's first feature film, Closely Watched Trains, based on the book by Bohumil Hrabal, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967. His latest movie, I Served the King of England, also adapted from a work by Hrabal, is a comedy about greed and corruption in what was then Czechoslovakia. Despite covering some tumultuous years of Czech history, such as the German occupation and the later rise of Communism, Menzel keeps the action light and cheerful.
Facts of the Case
It's the early 1960s when Jan Dítè is released after nearly 15 years in prison. Assigned to restore an abandoned cottage near the Czechoslovakia-German border, the introspective Jan recalls the memories of his struggle for fortune and love in the years before and during WWII.
Told in flashback, Jan's story is that of a small man from a small town who happily sold frankfurters at the train station until he got greedy. The ambitious young man becomes a waiter and works his way up from bars to a resort-spa and then to the dining room of a ritzy hotel in Prague. Along the way, he has many affairs but the love of his life is Liza, a German girl who idolizes Adolf Hitler. When Germany annexes Czechoslovakia, Jan sides with his Nazi girlfriend.
An early flashback sets the tone of the movie to exaggerated effect. The young Jan (Ivan Barnev) is introduced as the character of a black and white silent movie complete with inter-titles and iris transitions. Everyone's movements seem slightly sped up as though we're watching the results of a hand-cranked camera. Jan sells a frankfurter to a wealthy train passenger and cheats him of his change while he's at it. He does it so casually that we suspect this is a practiced routine. There's no desperation in his actions or contempt in his attitude; Jan's simply playing the capitalist game on his own terms.
There is likely a tradition of Czech comedy I'm not familiar with, but Jan certainly brought to my mind shades of Hollywood silent comedians. This protagonist doesn't say much, and his stony expression owes something to Buster Keaton. His short stature, gracefully fast movement and slyly mischievous behavior channels Charles Chaplin's tramp character. When Jan notices that even rich men will get down on all fours to pick up loose change off the ground, he realizes that "money can lay the world at your feet." Observing the indulgences of society's elite—their carefree wielding of power, their unlimited appetites, and the glut of women available to them—Jan determines to become a millionaire.
The older Jan (Oldrich Kaiser, Dark Blue World) has mellowed out during his time in prison. His relaxed demeanor suggests he doesn't miss the lost opportunities of his youth so much. Rather, he seems to view them fondly as foolish endeavors and that's reflected in the comments he makes during the narration that dominates the flashbacks. "I discovered that those who said work is ennobling were the same men who drank all night and ate with lovely young ladies seated on their knees," he remembers.
Marcela, a younger woman working in the forest, inspires Jan's memories of his former lovers. In his youth, Jan has many encounters with strikingly gorgeous women. He showers them with money but it isn't entirely clear, aside from one visit to a brothel, if Jan always buys their affection. There isn't much of a case for his natural charm (more on that later) causing them to fall for him. That beautiful women are accessed through money and power is a constant theme in the movie. My first reaction was to interpret this element as a sexist fantasy. Reconsidering, I think it's a further reflection of the corruption that Jan sees and aspires toward.
Sony gives the movie a decent transfer on this DVD. Darker scenes show a slight softness but there's consistently good detail in the image. For the most part, the picture exhibits a rich, warm color palette. There is a subtle, but surprisingly active 5.1 Surround sound mix. Clear dialogue is concentrated in the center speaker while music and environmental sound effects make use of the surround speakers.
The theatrical trailer is the only supplement to the movie. Another 11 trailers for Sony titles are also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's deliberateness to the way Jan is presented: the small man with big ambitions. His non-threatening persona allows him to fly below the radar through society and history. However, I didn't like young Jan very much. It's difficult to feel a connection with this mostly silent character that acts like a jerk more than a few times. His desire to become top waiter at a restaurant inspires him to sabotage for his personal benefit. He isn't above tossing a mentor's mark of pride back in his face when he's lost his status. Certainly, there's irony in the fact that in one of his few moments of decency—showing hospitality to a German woman when others won't—Jan commits his loyalty to the wrong side. There are moments of charming comedy in Barnev's performance, but Jan's personality left me cold.
The protagonist of I Served the King of England might not be an exemplar of good morals, but there is an underlying sweetness to this story of greed showing us the way. Pleasantly light comic touches and an attractive cast make this slice of history an enjoyable, light confection.
Not guilty of excess.
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