Prague cinema packed for gala premiere of I Served the King of England

'Moi qui ai servi le roi d'Angleterre'

Prague's Slovansky Dum multiplex cinema was packed out on Wednesday evening for the gala premiere of Jiri Menzel's eagerly awaited I Served the King of England. The film tells the story of Jan Dite, a diminutive, quick-witted and ambitious waiter, whose fortunes echo those of Czechoslovakia in the turbulent and often tragic 20th century.

Jiri Menzel with his wife Olga  (left) and actress Julia Jentsch,  photo: CTK
Jiri Menzel fought a ten-year legal battle for the rights to this film, so it's been a long time coming. It's an adaptation of one of the best known works by writer Bohumil Hrabal, and it's being released forty years after Menzel won an Oscar for another Hrabal adaptation - Closely Observed Trains.

Much of the action takes place in the opulent cafes and lavish country homes of pre-war Czechoslovakia, and there's a fair bit of decadence on display. One of the most sumptuous scenes is a banquet given by the Emperor of Ethiopia, featuring a roast camel. The emperor - presumably modelled on Haile Selassie - is played by the Prague-based American singer, Tonya Graves, herself a Hrabal fan. So did Jiri Menzel succeed in bringing the book to the screen?

"In my opinion, yes. In my opinion he made an incredibly beautiful film. Beautiful to watch, visually it's an absolute feast, and the story is also beautiful. I'm a big fan of the book as well, but like most books, when you transform it to film, you've got to leave something out because there's just no way you can put the entire thing there or you'll be in the cinema for a week. I think he did a really good job of bringing the feeling of the book to the screen. That's my opinion, and opinions are kind of like belly buttons - we all have one!"

There's a great deal of humour in I Served the King of England, and the lead role - waiter Jan Dite - is handled gamely by Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev. But the story is really about Czechoslovakia, and deals with such painful themes as the Nazi occupation, the deportation of the Jews, the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans and the Communist coup. Not surprisingly, expectations are high, and the public reaction at last night's premiere was mixed.

“I Served the King of England“
"I think the film will be successful in foreign countries. I don't think it's only designed for Czech people but for foreign countries as well. I predict success for it."

"I like his films but not this one. I think he could make much better work than this. It's a good film, but it's not something 'wow' for me."

So some mixed views there on I Served the King of England. If you're in Prague and want to make your own mind up, the film goes on general release this weekend.