I Served the King of England
iří Menzel’s “I Served the King of England” is a Czech national epic served up with champagne and truffles. This graceful and leisurely movie, adapted from a 1974 novel by the masterly Bohumil Hrabal, covers an enormous time span, starting in the nineteen-thirties, then passing through the Nazi occupation and the Communist period. It covers an enormous range of experience, too, yet the style is consistently playful, even frivolous, and slyly erotic—at times, we might be watching a burlesque operetta. Menzel, whose first adaptation of Hrabal’s work, “Closely Watched Trains,” won an Academy Award in 1967, did not emigrate to this country, as Ivan Passer and Milos Forman, his fellow-directors of the Czech film renaissance, did. Staying behind, Menzel went through myriad ups and downs in the final twenty years of Communist rule (for a while, his work was banned) and developed, I would guess, a healthy sense of the absurd, which doubtless shaped his adaptation of Hrabal’s material. The movie dramatizes the incongruities of the Czech experience by charting the unlikely progress of Jan Ditě (Ivan Barnev), a charming Everyman who is very lucky until suddenly he isn’t. Short, blond, and highly mobile, Ditě, a waiter by trade, is a cross between Candide and Forrest Gump—ever optimistic, and completely unmarked by knowledge or experience. The movie begins at the end of the story, in the nineteen-sixties, when Ditě (played, at this point, by Oldrich Kaiser) is released from a Communist prison in Prague after serving almost fifteen years for becoming a rich man, and is ordered to move to a town in Bohemia where, before the war, Sudeten Germans lived. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, in 1938, “liberating” the Sudeten Germans was his initial excuse. But after the war the ethnic Germans were expelled from the area, leaving ghost towns behind. In this melancholy graveyard, Ditě, now wised up and becalmed, reviews his life.
In an elegant Prague restaurant, the other waiters tower over the young Ditě, and the diners are as fat as walruses. But he survives and prospers; he’s a mover—eager to please yet opportunistic, a man with fabulous animal instincts—and Ivan Barnev, a Bulgarian actor, spins with his trays among the customers as if pirouetting on ice skates. Menzel plays up the Chaplin associations; the small Barnev has Chaplin’s darting physical agility and lecherous instincts hidden by honeyed manners. Ditě dreams of being a millionaire but throws away his money whenever he has any, particularly favoring a lovely young prostitute. In “Closely Watched Trains,” Menzel turned a boy’s sexual initiation into lyrical rapture, and, forty-two years later, the sexual mood is richer, more luxurious, but just as rapturous. The scenes are staged without passion or torment; the sex is pure delectation. Afterward, the naked bodies are strewn with money, flowers, and fruit.
Ales Brezina’s score, with its shimmering strings, is rich in anticipation—some of it sounds like the beginning of a pas de deux from a nineteenth-century ballet. The entire movie is brushed with fairy dust. Easily, and with supreme confidence, Menzel plays with anti-realism, turning an early sequence into a mock silent film and others into episodes that seem to leap off a stage. Much of the movie is set in restaurants and hotel lobbies; Menzel may feel that the pomp of old Europe can now be done only as farce. At a reception for a tiny Abyssinian prince and his retinue, a host of waiters, stationed down the length of a long banquet table, pour glasses of wine one after another, each bottle moving forward like the chorines’ legs in a Busby Berkeley number. A classy hotel in the country, gleaming white in the sun, turns out to be a brothel run by a dandy racing around the furniture in a wheelchair. It’s staffed by girls, dressed stylishly, who accommodate eager middle-aged men—they enter the scene like frat boys in a college revue. The hotel, offering the ultimate in luxury before the war, undergoes an ironic transformation. Ditě, too dumb to see that he’s choosing the wrong side, falls in love with a Sudeten German (Julia Jentsch) who is a stern Hitler fanatic. She goes off to fight with the Wehrmacht, and Ditě stays behind at the hotel, which the S.S. turns into a breeding ground for the master race: naked German blondes fling themselves into a swimming pool in giddy anticipation of the arrival of supermen from the front who will impregnate them. Later in the war, the girls are replaced in the pool by naked German soldiers with a leg or an arm missing. The joking turns sardonic, quietly savage, even vengeful.
Menzel strings his sequences together with great affection and skill, but the movie, an absurdist picaresque, doesn’t have much cumulative impact, and perhaps the hero is too much a lightweight to hold an epic together. Ditě never determines his own fate. He ignores politics and is eventually thrown into prison by the Communists because he doesn’t recognize them as a threat. Yet he’s likable, even lovable, and, in Menzel’s gentle affirmations at the end of the movie, he has some fine moments as a middle-aged man. The small country, like the small man, gets pushed around by bullies but survives through instinct and guile. It’s as if Menzel were celebrating not only Czech identity after the murderous twentieth century but his own cunning and perseverance as an artist.
Don Cheadle, the star of “Hotel Rwanda” and “Crash,” has been one of the best reasons to go to the movies in recent years. An actor with a beautifully pensive and melancholy temperament, he reveals thoughts, and sometimes deepest miseries and profoundest doubts, through minute inflections of voice and expression—he never pushes too hard. He’s the star of the new terrorism thriller “Traitor,” and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing what he does. Based on an idea by Steve Martin (of all people), and written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, “Traitor” comes close to saying something serious, but it slips away into nonsense. Cheadle plays a tormented American Muslim from Chicago named Samir Horn. Born in Sudan, Samir is a former U.S. Special Services operative who, at the beginning of the movie, turns up in Yemen and sells bomb detonators to a terrorist group. He’s arrested by the Yemeni authorities and thrown into prison, where he forms a bond of friendship with Omar, an ardent Moroccan terrorist played by the terrific French-born actor Saïd Taghmaoui. Sponsored by Omar, Samir throws in his lot with big-time terrorists planning a strike against the United States. He’s “gone over” to the enemy.
At least, that’s what Clayton (Guy Pearce), a persistent and highly airborne counter-terrorism specialist in the F.B.I., thinks. Clayton and his saturnine partner, Archer (Neal McDonough), track Samir around the globe and try to bring him in. What Clayton doesn’t know is that Samir is being run by some sort of rogue C.I.A. operator (Jeff Daniels); his job is to infiltrate terrorist cells in order to capture a shadowy figure known as Nathir, who coördinates strikes against America. Despite its fresh settings (it was shot in Morocco and Marseilles as well as Chicago), and its interest in how terrorists recruit and train people and talk to one another, the movie has the familiar form of something like “Sleeper Cell,” a Showtime mini-series from a few years back about an African-American Muslim who penetrates a terrorist group, or of an undercover-cop picture like “Donnie Brasco,” in which the good-guy hero enters the Mafia and has to decide whether to take part in crimes in order to sustain his credibility among the hoods. Will Samir commit actual terrorist acts in order to protect his cover? He’s a devout Muslim. Is he tempted by all the appeals to Islamist solidarity and martyrdom that he hears from the other men? Cheadle, stricken by doubt and guilt, takes this dilemma as far as the screenplay will let him, but the movie falters just when it should be at its boldest: it suggests that Samir is trapped by his situation, and the solution that he comes up with is presented, oddly, as a moral victory when it’s actually a disaster. The filmmakers, I think, got in over their heads and couldn’t decide whether they were making an action thriller or a drama of conscience; they wound up flubbing both.
Most of the violence is small-scale, which is a relief from the usual digital convulsions, and the acting is generally solid, though the terrorist leaders, when you meet them, are suave in the manner of those Hollywood Nazis from 1942 who ran art galleries and wore silk dressing gowns and spoke in the most cultivated tones. I don’t know what such men are like, but I’m sure that this sinister sophistication is a cliché. “Traitor,” at its most ambitious, tries to dramatize the fervent sense of solidarity among radical Islamists. It also awkwardly reminds us that not all Muslims advocate violence. Yet there’s an incendiary element in the notion that seemingly ordinary American Muslims have been “planted” by foreign terrorists, and are just waiting for a signal to blow themselves and other Americans to smithereens. In its blundering way, the movie spreads a little paranoia and mistrust.