Doodad Kind of Town

"I Served the King of England"
September 9, 2008, 11:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I spent as much time driving to and from a matinee of “I Served the King of England” today as I spent in the theatre actually watching the film. Those of you familiar with Chicago suburban traffic – and the amount of road construction underway in and around Evanston in particular – will not be surprised to hear it took me a good 50 minutes to drive the 14 miles between my home in the northwest suburbs and the Century Cinema in that north suburban town.

As I navigated the many detours and the unfamiliar one-way streets of downtown Evanston, I kept muttering to myself, “This movie had damn well better be worth the trip.”

And miraculously, it was worth every second of the trip. And then some.

Infused with more whimsical humor than dark drama, “I Served the King of England” traces the history of mid-20th century Czechoslovakia through the eyes of an ambitious hotel waiter named Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser). We first meet him as he leaves prison sometime in the early 1960s. He’s a grizzled little man with a patient smile; as he tells us in voiceover narration, “I was sentenced to 15 years. But due to the amnesty, I got out in 14 years, 9 months.” Clearly he’s pleased by this insignificant reduction in his sentence. On his release, he’s given a dusty, ransacked house on the Czech/German border (it was abandoned by its original German inhabitants at the end of the war). The place is a mess, but he sets to work cleaning and repairing it with uncomplaining gratitude. The humble dwelling, he discovers, was once a guesthouse, and guesthouses are something that Dite knows well. As he holds a beer glass up to catch a ray of light, the film flashes back to the 1920s when he was a waiter in a small Prague pub.

The young Dite (played by Ivan Barnev) had one burning ambition: to be a millionaire. He pursues his goal by providing excellent service to wealthy and well-connected men, advancing through a series of jobs at increasingly posh hotels (including one which is little more than an elegant brothel for rich industrialists.) Barnev has an ingratiating, innocent appearance that belies his character’s single-minded ambition, plus an almost Chaplinesque gift for graceful physical comedy. And, as portrayed here, his rise to the headwaiter position at Prague’s best hotel is an idyllic parade of friendly customers, big tips, rich foods and beautiful women in floaty, flowery summer dresses. That these women are prostitutes, made available for rich men’s pleasures, seems almost beside the point. Their scenes in the story feel strangely innocent; couplings take place offscreen, while the onscreen hijinks between the “hostesses” and their guests are comparatively tame. (On a hot summer afternoon at the brothel, the women and their guests are provided with trays of snowballs, which they pelt at one another in a lively battle on the hotel lawn.)

Dite adores the women, and makes love to many along the way – again, in innocent-feeling scenes that end with Dite decorating the women’s bodies with flowers, fruit or money, and holding a mirror up for them to admire his handiwork.

It’s all very heady and funny, but we know where this story is heading. (We’ve already seen Dite emerging from prison in the future, and we ostensibly know what happened in Europe in the years leading up to World War II.) Dite, however, seems blind to the changes taking place around him; the arrival of the Germans doesn’t make a dent in his relentless opportunism. Even as the once-bustling hotel restaurant falls into a ghostly near-emptiness, he blithely continues to focus on his wardrobe and his plans to purchase a hotel of his own. When he begins courting a fervently patriotic German girl, it’s clear he has begun a moral descent which will eventually lead to that stretch in prison.

What keeps the film engaging (and not merely shocking) at this point is that even as we watch Dite make disastrous moral choices, we never stop caring about him. We don’t hate him, we just want him to wake up to what’s happening around him. That’s partly due to the structure of the film (we’ve already seen him in his post-prison life as a contented and unambitious older man, so we know he eventually does get wiser) and partly due to the actors who play him. Barnev, who is short of stature and baby-faced, looks boyish even while sporting a thin mustache and a few age lines. In his boyishness, the venality of Dite’s ambition is softened, made to feel almost harmless. Kaiser, in his scenes, has the self-contained, amused demeanor of a man who’s seen dark days but is happy just to be alive. He’s a character you embrace from the moment he shows up.

Before “I Served the King of England” was over, I was already making plans to see it again, figuring out which friends of mine would love it and have to see it with me. It’s that kind of movie: engrossing, captivating, charming and challenging by turns, morally complex but with a properly hopeful ending. You might want to ignore me when I tell you it’s the best movie released so far this year (because I’ve previously attached that accolade to two lesser accomplishments,”Flawless” and “Swing Vote.”), but this one truly is. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


3 Comments so far
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Thank you so much, Pat, for extolling the virtues of this wonderful film. I have read reviews and reactions that have expressed everything from disappointment to hate. Apparently, some people are offended that any film should have an essentially buoyant tone during the evil years of Nazism and Communist oppression.I think these folks miss the point, perhaps somewhat similar to the mawkish Life Is Beautiful, but much more true. Dite is reflecting on his life. This is not an omniscent narrative. He saw all the delights and, yes, the arrests and confiscations. But he somehow maintained his optimism, like Voltaire’s Candide. “It’s all for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” That was a satire, and so is this in many respects, but sweetly so.

Comment by Marilyn

Based on your glowing review I cannot WAIT to see this movie. I am already mentioned it to some friends and told them how much you loved it.As someone who totally understands the suburban Chicago traffic…this film must have REALLY been good!Great seeing you yesterday!You must let me know what perfumes you are loving from your samples.

Comment by Parisjasmal

Marilyn -And thank you for this comment. I think you nail it when you point out that “this is not an omniscent narrative.” It was obvious to me that Dite’s recollections were intended as idealized versions of what happened to him, not meant to be realistic rednerings of history. His apparent lack of concern about the terrible things happening around him is more a product of his naivete and optimism than any willful denial of the truth. He is a truly memorable character. I especially like that you picked up on the sweetness in this film. I’ve read many glowing reviews, but some refer to the film as cynical – I didn’t think there was an ounce of cynicism anwwhere in it. Jen – It was great to see you yesterday. I don’t know how long or where this film is going to play in theaters, but you should definitely look for it when it comes out on DVD.

Comment by Pat

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