I Served The King Of England
Film: I Served The King Of England
Release date: 26th May 2008
Running time: 114 mins
Director: Jiri Menzel
Starring: Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser, Julia Jentsch, Marián Labuda, Milan Lasica
Country: Czech Republic/Slovakia
Waltzing with gaiety through dark times, the novel of the same name by renowned Czech author Bohumil Hrabal is brought to life by director Jiri Menzel in what is the duo’s sixth collaboration together. I Served The King Of England is two tales of one man, Jan Dite, set initially around the German invasion and the Second World War, and latterly his older self dealing with the fallout of the lengthy communist upheaval, that took place a handful of years after that war’s conclusion.
Beginning with the emergence of a world wearied Jan, after what appears to have been a lengthy tenure in prison; he departs the Czech capital and settles down in a deserted house, in a wooded glade, somewhere near the German border. He fills his days with the renovation of a derelict house, and befriends a couple of passersby who also have moved to the region to escape the communist agenda. While rebuilding and spending time with his only two sources of companionship, Jan recalls and looks back on his life with a warm fondness.
His younger self was in complete contrast to the individual he is now. He is an enthusiastic, yet small (which is referenced frequently) individual who, through studying the actions of those passing through his village’s train station, has learnt the influence and sway money holds over people. Swindling businessmen out of their hard-earned money as a hotdog vendor, Jan is spared by a savvy trader who instead of handing him over to the police encourages him to pursue his own entrepreneurial tendencies. So, Jan’s journey begins, as he moves slowly up the ranks of the service industry, from his lowly position as a waiter in the local restaurant to the gloriously prestigious setting of the Hotel Pa?íž in the capital city of Prague.
I Served The King Of England continues to veer back and forth between the two existences, marking the contrast between the person he is and the person he once was, as, while he manages to chance his way into some fortunate circumstances, he begins to learn that the wealth he yearns after comes at a price…
As is not often the case with novel to film adaptations, Obsluhoval jsem Anglického Krále (as it is in its native tongue) doesn’t suffer in the loss of any content from its original source. Not only is the novel itself not especially lengthy, thus allowing the key events to be transferred into motion picture, but given this is the sixth collaboration between the author and director, there is a great harmony in the translation. Hrabal points out that which is needed to make the story as true to its origins as possible, while Menzel captures and encourages the warmth out of his actors to make Jan Dite as believable a character as possible.
I Served The King Of England finds itself in a position of being very difficult to categorise. It is at heart a drama about one man’s life, yet it throws in so many different emotions, allowing itself to be immensely humorous one moment to poignantly serious the next. It addresses issues on the desires for financial gain, and at what human cost the complete determination to achieve this goal comes at, while playfully looking at the disadvantages and advantages of being short in stature – an equally diminutive Ethiopian Emperor awards Jan a medal because he cannot reach the neck height of the Hotel Pa?íž’s Maitre d’.
This cinematic multiplicity also happens to be the template for the protagonist himself, which makes his transformation into the straightforward, rurally inclined older Jan to be much more compelling. As young Jan begins his entrepreneurial journey, there is a great self-centeredness to his actions. While he moves around with baby-faced charms and natural gaiety, endearing himself to the viewer, his actions are always done to further his own gains, to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a millionaire. It isn’t until the film’s second half, when it turns slightly darker, that we begin to see his trueself emerge. In one particular sequence of events, Jan rescues a blonde woman from being attacked by men on the street of Prague. After having developed a relationship with her, he takes her for lunch to the Hotel Pa?íž where she is refused service – as it transpires, she is a German Nazi. Jan’s relationship with her proves to be the film’s emotional crux, for where many would see a complete disregard for the political situations of the times, an ignorance and stupidity, the director and actor manage to maintain the protagonist’s charm and present a blissful naiveté, with unwavering loyalty and love in the face of public disdain.
I Served The King Of England is a very personal and bittersweet work for both the writer and director, as they visit dark and unsettling times in their nation’s history, while keeping the positives about what it is to be Czech – the optimism, the enthusiasm – and highlighting all that is beautiful about both the capital city and the surrounding countryside.
No puns about Czechs, cheques or checks, this is cinema at its most bare; a journey of human emotion and discovery that leaves you a better person for the experience.
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