I Served the King of England

Period comedy

  • Written and directed by Jirí Menzel
  • From a novel by Bohumil Hrabal

If you weren’t lucky enough to be born wealthy, and you haven’t made your own fortune, You should devote your life, for your own, selfish reasons, to serving the filthy rich? Whether you’re a waiter or a prostitute, you’ll have a wonderful time.

For more than half this movie’s runtime, that appears to be the theme of Jirí Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy. It’s an empty, meaningless, and, when you think about it, totally amoral message, yet we accept it, in large part because Ivan Barnev is engaging and funny as the story’s protagonist, an ambitious waiter named Jan Díte. Barney looks a bit like Alan Tudyk (Death at a Funeral, the “Firefly” TV series), and has much the same comic aura, with an added dash of Charlie Chaplin. Barney carries the picture well on his diminutive shoulders.

The picture also looks great, set mostly in the 1930s and filled with clever visual touches and with images of a lifestyle you couldn’t possibly afford. And it’s just plain funny.

We also accept the premise because we know Jan has less happy times ahead of him. The movie begins with an older but wiser Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) released from a Communist prison (his release involves the first of many clever sight gags). Most of the story is told in flashbacks as Jan enjoys his new freedom and contemplates his past life. The flashback structure and the prison opening assure us that Jan’s life isn’t all fun and games.

Yet fun and games dominate most of the picture. But just as they begin to get tiring (for the audience, not Jan), the Nazis arrive, raising the stakes. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and proves just how amoral he can be.

Even as it gets heavy, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone. The result is an odd mix of escapist entertainment and serious (if not exactly profound) message that works better than it has any right to.

Two warnings:

First, there are subtitle problems. The beginning of the film involves a lot of first-person narration over wonderfully entertaining images, forcing you to decide between reading and watching. Later in the film, the subtitles are occasionally unreadable.

Second, this is a very sexist movie. Most of the women Jan encounters and beds are prostitutes. They seem to enjoy their work. When Jan finally has a real, romantic relationship, it’s with a Nazi.

I Served the King of England screened at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival.