OK, so calling this a ‘Just Watched’ blog is a bit of a lie. I actually saw this film a little while ago, but due to being away and being busy I have not had time to update O&T in some time, so many apologies there. On the plus side, I’ve lots of movies to catch up on, so best get cracking.
I Served the King of England is a bit of an odd little movie. It’s a Czech film made in 2006 which follows the life story of waiter Jan Dite as he reflects upon it high in the nation’s hills whilst renovating an old cabin abandoned by the Nazis. The film flicks between Jan’s old self (Oldrich Kaiser), fresh out of prison, remembering his actions and his young self (Ivan Barnev) performing them. It starts off as a bit of a slapstick comedy, with the young Dite thinking himself too small to woo the ladies and yet bedding some unbelievably attractive women as he skits from one waiting job to another. Eventually the plot finds him in Prague’s swankiest hotel just as the Nazis invade. He falls in love with a Hitler Youth member, and the movie’s main story begins to take off from there.
As you can probably tell from this (albeit brief) synopsis, I Served the King of England is an uneven film which veers from fun-loving comedy to serious political commentary as it progresses. It’s better suited to the former of these two styles, however, so it’s a bit of a shame when the second half begins. Nevertheless, both halves of the movie have their problems as well as strengths.
The comedy portion of the film is very enjoyable as we learn about Jan’s idiosyncrasies (he always throws his loose change on the floor just to see others scrabble for it) and his enviable talent for seduction. But the plot never seems to be going anywhere so although we enjoy the movie’s slapstick moments (and a fine comic turn from Barnev as the young Jan), the story doesn’t progress and we wonder if this film will ever really get going.
Then, when things take a turn for the very serious, you feel that you’ve been cheated out of a good comedy. The Nazis’ invasion and subsequent occupation of then-Czechoslovakia is a bit sudden; we get so caught up in the blooming romance between Jan and stoically Nazi beauty Liza (Julia Jentsch) that the invasion feels almost like an afterthought. Only when the master waiter Skrivanek (an excellent Martin Huba), under whom Jan has learned, is taken away by Nazi soldiers does the true scope of the occupation take hold, and by then it’s a little bit late. There are some nicely handled scenes later on, including a memorable one where Jan returns to where he first got a waiting job only to find it utterly changed, but it’s not brilliantly handled in flashback or in the movie’s ‘present day’.
In fact, the present day Jan is a pretty empty character whose situation is scantily explained: we don’t really know what he’s going to do with his life or why his presence is really necessary in anything other than a voice over. It feels like a bit of a wasted effort really, as more time could have gone on making the second half equal to the first.
Overall, I Served the King of England is a reasonable film from a country with a burgeoning cinematic tradition (see the excellent Cesky Sen if Czech cinema is your bag, it’s a wonderful pseudo-documentary), but one which should have stuck to its comedy first half rather than try and explore a difficult subject in a scant 60 minutes. Ivan Barnev and Martin Huba are excellent, but the movie’s uneven tone and unsatisfactory third act leave you feeling a little disappointed.
5/10: A film whose first 60 minutes promises much, but whose second hour fails to deliver. Not great but not terrible either, I Served the King of England merits viewing, but won’t reward as much as it really could.