For the last decade American movie audiences have been bludgeoned so mercilessly with poorly and vacuously executed whimsy (“We’re drowning in quirk,” Michael Hirschorn famously wrote in the September 2007 issue of Atlantic Monthly, and I wholeheartedly agree) that an even partially successful excursion into magical realism like Czech New Waver Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England comes as nearly a relief, a rare contemporary example of how fanciful, wide-eyed filmmaking can be employed not simply for the sake of ironic condescension or set design window-dressing but for genuine emotional and political exploration.
I Served the King of England is based on Bohumil Hrabal’s short but epic novel of the same name, in which a diminutive Candide-like simpleton named Dite (Czech for “child”) follows his dream of becoming a millionaire and hobnobbing with the rich and powerful by rising from frankfurter vendor in pre-invasion Czechoslovakia, to hotel owner just after the fall of the Third Reich, and then finally to released prisoner from the Communist regime.
Menzel has us see through the eyes of waiter and then maitre d’ Dite (played as an eager, taciturn young man by Ivan Barnev; as a wiser older man by Oldrich Kaiser) as he gawks at the swells, through beer glasses that enlarge the figures of their trophy women and in dreamlike sequences of decadent splendor where industrialists gallivant in sped-up motion and overlit interiors, devouring champagne and oysters while bedding willing young females. Such fancy abounds in England—stylized ornate period detail, silent movie homages, fantastic touches like halos appearing above heads and dollar bills floating in the air.
Click here to read the rest of Michael Joshua Rowin’s review if I Served the King of England.