REEL CRITIC:

Filmed entirely in the Czech Republic, “I Served the King of England” is an overly long, artsy reminiscence of a hotel waiter who has just been released from incarceration after serving a lengthy sentence as a political prisoner.

The film is the work of writer/director Jirí Menzel, whose 1968 classic “Closely Watched Trains” delighted audiences the world over with its freshness and clever charm. This production, although entertaining for the most part, does not have the impact of the earlier film, perhaps because it lacks directness and simplicity.

Jan Díte (Ivan Barnev) begins as a young, mild-mannered though morally bankrupt waiter who is obsessed with becoming a millionaire. His upwardly mobile career takes him through a series of lucrative jobs in Prague's swankiest hotels, which even include a stint in a luxury bordello.

By the late 1930s though, the Nazis under Hitler have invaded Czechoslovakia, and Díte's career as a hotelier is put on hold. Díte's wife, Líza, is a dedicated Nazi who joins the army and is sent to the Polish front while Díte remains in Prague working as a nurse in a Nazi “research center.”

After the war, Líza returns from Poland with a box of valuable postage stamps that have been “liberated” from their former Jewish owners. After Líza's untimely demise, Díte sells the stamps and buys his own fancy hotel. The new communist government steps in to appropriate his holdings and imprisons him, giving him a 15-year sentence, one year for each of the millions he has amassed.

Díte recognizes many of his old friends and customers from his hotel days and, his sense of humor still intact, mutters to himself, “I'm finally where I always wanted to be: surrounded by millionaires.”

Upon his release from prison, Díte (now played by a more mature Oldrich Kaiser) is sent off to exile to maintain a gravel road in an abandoned German village somewhere in the Czech hinterland.

While there, he has the time to reflect on his frivolous past, but he does so with the same whimsical smile that he had in his youth and seems to have finally gained some insights into his behavior.

Díte's reminiscences of his hotel days are presented in a grandiose style with waiters and chambermaids mincing about in scenes of opulence that appear to be choreographed much like any number of dance scenes from Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s. This reverie is a balm to Díte, who spends his days slogging one wheelbarrow load of gravel up one hill after another.

His memories allow him to make things right with himself, and he does so with his smirky smile and a good grace that has always carried him through.

“I Served” contains many humorous and interesting scenes, but its impact has been diluted by its sheer length. Two hours for such a slow-paced film is far too long. Director Menzel could have pared back a few of the lengthy hotel scenes if only for the sake of brevity that would have given this film a better flow.

Rated R for sexual situations and nudity, “I Served the King of England” is presented with English subtitles and is playing at selected theaters.


?JEFF KLEMZAK is a film fan from La Crescenta.

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