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Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006
Directed by
Jiri Menzel
120 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

I Served The King Of England

Synopsis: Jan Díte (Oldrich Kaiser and Ivan Barnev) is a “small man from a small world” who after he has just been released from prison after a 15-year jail term tells the story of his rise from humble hot-dog seller to millionaire against the backdrop of modern Czech history. 

I Served The King Of England is a masterful work by a veteran of Czech cinema (Menzel won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1967 with his debut feature, Closely Observed Trains). A gorgeously composed film, it offers much to delight both eye (as, for example, when the young Jan looks at the customers through the thick glass of  beer stein or when he decorates his naked paramours with flowers or food) and mind as Menzel repeats richly metaphoric motifs such mirrors, money and food through the narrative.

Initially, the film demands some forbearance, looking as if it were shaping up to be little more than the elegant and elegiacally libidinous memories of a horny old goat as it flips back and forth between the older Jan and the recreation of his memories of his sexual exploits as a callow young man. Gradually, however, we stay more with the younger self and the film gains in depth as it follows his path through the rise and fall of Naziism and the eventual Communist putsch that leads to his sudden decline and imprisonment. The always difficult interweaving of the personal and the historical is done superbly. Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal and adapted for the screen by Menzel in this respect it is reminiscent of Günter Grasse’s The Tin Drum which was filmed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1979 (also a Best Foreign Film Oscar winner).

The casting of Ivan Barnev as the young Jan was a winning move for he is perfect as a fecklessly ambitious, slightly comical character, a kind of homely Antoine Doinel to Menzel’s Truffaut. The rest of the cast however are also all excellent in what is a flawless production,

In dramatic terms, the portion of the film devoted to the older Jan is less successfully handled with the relationship between him and a much younger woman evaporating with no tangible residue. What does impress however is the wisdom and insight that Jan brings to his story and that Menzel captures so felicitously throughout and with his final, summatory scenes. I Served The King Of England is a work of honesty, maturity and grace.




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