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Berlin Film Review: ‘A Prominent Patient’

Variety logo Variety 2/17/2017 Jay Weissberg
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Set aside righteous indignation at the way Great Britain and France sold Czechoslovakia down the river with the 1938 Munich Agreement. Ignore startling historical license, a production designer seemingly unaware of the concept “period-appropriate,” and accents in English that defy geographic boundaries let alone comprehension. Even if you overlook all that, “A Prominent Patient” would still be a train wreck for its godawful script and muddled structure. Based on moments in the life of Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak ambassador to the Court of St. James just before World War II, Julius Ševčík’s film will appeal to Czech patriotism but hasn’t a chance outside home territories.

Jan Masaryk (Karel Roden) was the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia and a man dutifully aware of the legacy his name conveyed. He had a hellish time as ambassador in the U.K. when his nation was used as a bargaining chip in European appeasement, and was almost certainly murdered in Prague by the communists in 1948. Ševčík’s interest lies in the volatile years between 1937 and ’39, a period which sealed the fate not just of his country but the world. With so much drama already bursting from every angle, why invent nonsense that pales in comparison to reality?

About half the film takes place in “Vineland, New Jersey,” where Masaryk is institutionalized in 1938 for the second time, in a psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Hugo Stein (Hanns Zischler). This section is a complete fabrication, though co-scripter Petr Kolečko gave an intrview for Radio Praha saying that so little is known about Masaryk’s visits to the U.S. that it’s possible the ambassador really was in a mad house — which is like saying just because we don’t have photos of aliens taking tea in Buckingham Palace doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. In a further Kolečko quote that would make Sean Spicer proud, he states, “We haven’t created an alternative interpretation of history. The film’s interpretation is completely legitimate.” Well, no, actually, it isn’t.

It certainly is likely that Masaryk was deeply depressed following Britain’s fateful cowardice in the face of Hitler’s aggression. But giving him schizophrenic tendencies and putting him in a loony bin run by a gay German psychiatrist who fled the Nazis adds only cheap drama and fails to meaningfully convey the mental toll of exile. It’s at the Jersey shore, while on day leave to give a lecture at a country club, that he’s introduced to American writer Marcia Davenport (Spanish actress Arly Jover, sporting an invented accent that beggars belief), who’s immediately drawn to the unstable ambassador, though in truth, they didn’t meet until 1941.

Masaryk was indeed a ladies’ man, an element of his personality the film pushes beyond credulity. In London, he’s sleeping with Lady Anne Higgins (Gina Bramhill), wife of the assistant to Lord Halifax (Dermot Crowley), though for an aristocrat she’s styled like a cheap floozy. Judging by her screams, he must be a most skilled lover indeed, but in a very muddy bit of reasoning, he’s only using her as a way to get close to the Foreign Secretary, in the hopes to persuade him to convince Neville Chamberlain (Paul Nicholas) to stand up to Hitler.

It’s really hard to make the negotiations leading up to the Munich Agreement boring, yet that’s just what “A Prominent Patient” achieves, and little else. Constantly moving back and forth between 1938 and ’39 tampers with coherence and destroys the tension of the negotiations; Ševčík states that he wants audiences to draw parallels with Europe today, but it’s an unlikely takeaway given the script’s penchant for poorly-reasoned invention that undercuts the real consequences of appeasement. How some of the actors said their lines with a straight face will forever be a mystery.

Location work meant to stand in for New Jersey and the U.K. couldn’t look more Czech if it tried, and “period” details are laughably all over the place. Is the Mycroft Hotel in London meant as some Holmesian in-joke? Did no one think that naming Lady Anne’s husband “Henry Higgins” might cause sniggles? Michal Lorenc’s expansive orchestrations (was that a flugelhorn?) fill the screen in entirely expected ways.

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