Martin Huba (left) and Ivan Barnev serve up smart comedy.
I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND (Jirí Menzel). 120 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (September 19). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN
For the first hour, everything is light-hearted drollery. In post-World War I Czechoslovakia, young Jan Dite, determined to get rich, becomes a waiter in a series of increasingly upscale hotel-brothels filled with wonderful food and beautiful women, patronized by overstuffed, smug millionaires. Jan likes to watch the wealthy scramble for dropped coins, but he's desperate to become one of them.
Veteran director Jirí Menzel (Closely Watched Trains) gives all this a light, graceful feel just this side of farce. He revels in the choreographed movement, sumptuous settings and playful eroticism.
Ivan Barnev is immensely engaging as young Jan. He's got the naive avarice of the young Malcolm McDowell in O Lucky Man!, good looks reminiscent of Robert Carlyle and flawless comic timing.
Jan's unshakeable self-interest and the airy tone remain when the Nazis invade. Our view of the character changes radically, but our sympathy remains - a remarkable balancing act by both actor and director.
Viewers with a better understanding of Czech history and culture may see this as a very pointed satire. Even without that advantage, it stands as a smart, elegant movie that lets its satiric points glide home as soft as butter.