I Served the King of England and The Duchess look back to European history | Film Review | Indy Week
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I Served the King of England and The Duchess look back to European history 

Live and let Di

click to enlarge Ivan Barnev as Jan Díte in I Served the King of England - PHOTO BY MARTIN SPELD/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • Photo by Martin Speld/ Sony Pictures Classics
  • Ivan Barnev as Jan Díte in I Served the King of England

I Served the King of England opens Friday in select theaters

In the anarchic world of cyber-communication, there's something called Godwin's Law that states that as discussion on, say, a blog comment thread grows longer and more heated, it approaches near-certainty that someone will invoke Hitler or Nazism.

The same can be said of movies set in central Europe in the early part of the 20th century. I'd been following Jirí Menzel's risqué Czech picaresque I Served the King of England with a reasonable amount of interest and amusement. Then, well past the halfway point, der Führer arrived, in the form of a radio broadcast.

"Uh-oh," thought I, "this is another Nazi movie."

It's true that the Nazis deserve to be memorialized as villainy par excellence in the six decades of cinema that followed their regime. It's also true that the average moviegoer has heard the Nazis say "Boo" from the time they were very small (two of my earliest exposures to the Third Reich were the hapless Rolf in The Sound of Music and the melting baddies in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Whether this over-familiarity with real-world evil is a good or a bad thing is a subject for something other than a movie review, but it does illustrate something about I Served the King of England. Simply put, this adaptation of a novel by the important 20th-century Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is badly dated. This is unfortunate, because Hrabal was a peer of such better-known Czech writers as Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, and his work, like theirs, takes a satirical view of Czech history. Hrabal's work has been turned to film numerous times, including Closely Watched Trains, a classic of the Prague Spring era that was directed by Menzel.

As lively as it is, I Served the King of England gives off an air of being a museum piece from the get-go. It's a Candide-like tale of a diminutive nobody named Jan Díte, a wide-eyed hustler with a knack for conjuring up money and bedding whores and chambermaids. Jan tells us early on that his one ambition in life was to be a millionaire. We don't actually see much evidence of that, however—it seems like he really wants to have lots of sex with the consistently pliant women in his world. Much of the story is told in flashback: The present day Jan has just been released from prison, so the flashbacks build up to his confession. (Hint: It has to do with Nazis.)

Despite the considerable shortcomings, there's a lot to like in this film. Particularly good is Martin Huba, playing the man who gives the film its title, a restaurant maître d' who takes pride in his uncanny food service skills, then offers an example, to Jan and to the audience, of keeping one's dignity and honor when the enemy shows up to eat.

This seems to be Menzel's seventh adaptation of a Hrabal text, and his film's tone and mise en scene—in scenes of the decadent rich behaving like randy teenagers, and of Jan working one hustle after another—have the buoyant humanism of Charles Chaplin and Jean Renoir. Still, for the better part of an hour, there's a worrisome lack of purpose to the proceedings as we see Jan bounce from job to job, playing tricks with his money and coaxing one lass after another out of her clothes. (Frankly, when I wasn't making the intended associations with early 20th-century film artistry, I was thinking of the bathetic Roberto Benigni.) When the nasty Nazis arrive for the third act, we have conflicting responses: First, there is relief, for we realize the whimsy is going to have a point; second, there is weary resignation: Oh no, not the Nazis again.

The film's home stretch takes us into 1938, the year of Neville Chamberlain's infamous appeasement of Hitler in which he ceded the Sudetenland to Germany. Jan meets Lise, a Czech of German extraction who happens to be a fanatical Hitlerite, and the story loses what minimal credibility it had when Jan inexplicably falls in love with her. (The actress playing Lise, curiously, is Julia Jentsch, who was last seen here playing the anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl in the film of the same name.)

Although the film turns out to be about the dangers of choosing naive, expedient behavior in the face of Nazi aggression, the point of Hrabal's story is more universal—it was secretly published in the 1970s, when his nation's liberalizing movement of 1968 had been crushed by the Soviet Union. But this is 2008, and Czechoslovakia hasn't existed for 15 years—it's been cleaved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, under boundaries very similar to what Hitler extracted from Chamberlain. The 20th century is long gone, and it's hard to attach much contemporary relevance to I Served the King of England. What we have is a mildly amusing comedy in which every female under 30 can be relied upon to disrobe. That may be a harmless enough night out at the movies, but it's surely something less than what Hrabal intended when he was alive and writing under very different circumstances. —David Fellerath


click to enlarge Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell in The Duchess - PHOTO BY NICK WALL/ PARAMOUNT VANTAGE
  • Photo by Nick Wall/ Paramount Vantage
  • Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell in The Duchess

The Duchess opens Friday throughout the Triangle

Why can't we let Diana, Princess of Wales, rest in peace?

Other than in the minds of movie studio bean counters, there is little perceptible sales hook for The Duchess apart from the distant family relation between the late Diana and Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire. Both women married young into royalty, suffered unhappy marriages, enjoyed great popularity among the masses, and died prematurely. Ooh, spooky.

Never mind that Diana plays no role whatsoever in this adaptation of Amanda Foreman's corset-ripper. Marketers have still subtly pushed the Di angle: Early trailers for the film appropriated Diana's image and declared "History repeats itself," while one ad poster paraphrases her familiar lament, "There were three people in her marriage."

The always fetching Keira Knightley again reaches for period prestige as the beautiful, charismatic Georgiana, whose mother (Charlotte Rampling) lassoes her into a semi-arranged marriage to Ralph Fiennes' emotionally distant Duke of Devonshire. From the jump, the three-headed screenplay follows the Palace Melodrama™ blueprint: an unhappy matrimony; difficulty siring a male scion; husband takes a mistress; spurned wife takes a younger hunky lover, who she is eventually forced to relinquish. In varying combinations, they are the identical elements comprising the narratives to cinematic forerunners from The Private Life of Henry VIII and Anne of the Thousand Days to Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Judged in a vacuum, The Duchess is engaging and mildly entertaining based chiefly on the quality of its cast. Knightley is the film's steady, slinky center, but Fiennes steals his every scene as the portrait of passive aggression. The Duke is hardly a sympathetic figure; indeed, quite the opposite is true. In many ways, he is just as captive as Georgiana to the strictures of privilege and a hierarchical social structure. He marries Georgiana out of practicality but falls in love with Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), even moving her into the palace alongside his wife, out of a craving for passion and companionship. Indeed, "Bess" gives a persuasive argument justifying her affair with the Duke and conniving betrayal of Georgiana as the only means at her disposal to gain custody of her three children from her abusive husband.

Most regrettable is that Georgiana's renowned political activism—at a time when women's suffrage was still more than a century away—is relegated to a mere backdrop for her romance with Member of Parliament and future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Director Saul Dibb consigns Georgiana to the status of a victim ultimately left to compromise happiness for her husband's half-hearted offer of "normalcy."

In lieu of tawdry love triangles and sudsy intrigue, The Duchess could have sounded the more feminist note of a sophisticated woman ahead of her time. Even Georgiana's infamous, raucous all-night partying might be couched as headstrong grabs at elusive independence. Wait a sec, that sounds just like—. —Neil Morris

  • What we have is a mildly amusing comedy in which every female under 30 can be relied upon to disrobe.

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