"I Served the King of England" is a real surprise. In Los Angeles theaters for half a second, I can't imagine this little Czech fable enjoyed a long theatrical run anywhere else. It's a shame. "King of England" is a delightful, fantastical little film directed by Jiri Menzel, the director behind "Closely Watched Trains", winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1966.
The film opens with Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) being released from prison and assigned to work in the forest, along with other cultural subversives. As he goes about refurbishing the run down cabin where he has been assigned to live, he remembers back to his early years, the years when all he wanted was to be a millionaire and own a posh, grand hotel. As we follow Jan (Ivan Barnev), he slowly works his way up from assistant waiter at a bar where intellectuals meet (and a prostitute entices him to her place of business introducing him to the pleasures of the flesh) to a fancy hotel in the country that caters to the whims of very rich men. He works his way up to the most grand and beautiful hotel in Prague. After he becomes the head waiter, World War II breaks out and Jan falls in love with a young German woman. Throughout these moments, the film follows Jan's rise from one job, each more important than the last, and also follows his sexual education from his initial meetings with a prostitute to his various affairs with different women.
I know, it sounds pretty pedestrian, like a million other films you have seen. Which is maybe the reason I didn't rush to the theaters to see it during it's theatrical release. But I was wrong. Very wrong. "I Served the King of England" is designed to look like a living fairy tale, even when World War II enters the film. Every scene has a slightly fantastical element or feel. But unlike "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas", the darker elements fit into this story smoothly, like the darker, scarier bits of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Jan literally floats his way through situations, always observing, trying to learn something that might help him later. Because he seldom speaks, Jan's antics could be modeled on Chaplin's.
When the Communists release him from prison, he moves to the country and meets another couple who are also outcasts and serving time in odd jobs. The couple, an older man and a younger woman (who Jan quickly determines was imprisoned because she is a nymphomaniac) are looking for trees to make into musical instruments. Jan and the couple become friends and Jan begins to lust after the younger woman. She realizes this and begins tormenting him, teasing him with flirtatious looks. But both are so good-natured about it, they both suspect nothing will ever happen and are just having fun with the process.
"I Served the King of England" is a rare find. Amusing, fun to watch, beautiful to look at, and fable like while maintaining a definite sense of a time and place. It is an enjoyable treat that deserves a bigger audience. Go rent it. Now.