Ben Nicholson Reviews

Film Review: A Prominent Patient

★★★☆☆

The always interesting Karel Roden is the MVP in Julius Ševčík’s A Prominent Patient, playing Czechoslovakian diplomat Jan Masaryk in this handsomely mounted Czech answer to a certain Oscar-winning Gary Oldman drama.

This divergence comes in the very crux of A Prominent Patient, and indeed inspires its English-language title (for use in territories where the original title, Masaryk, won’t have the same recognition as for domestic audiences). In the film Masaryk, after the German occupation of the Sudetenland, has himself committed to an American sanatorium where he recounts the developing political upheavals of the previous few years to an exiled German doctor, Stein (Hanns Zischler). In fact, this sojourn in a psychiatric institution is a fictional construct of the film that both offers a structure to its flashback-heavy narrative, but arguably undermines the authenticity of some of the character development.

The idea is to explore the psychological toll of exile and betrayal and while the invention of extreme mental instability could nullify the film’s good work, Roden manages to carry even the more incredulous moments. He doesn’t have the physical transformation or the barn-storming speeches of Gary Oldman’s Churchill to fall back on, but there’s something a little more playful and mournful about his portrayal of this womanising, cocaine-snorting, reluctant diplomat. Where Churchill steels himself when faced with the void of depression in the face of defeat, Masaryk suffers desperately with the guilt of failure.

Britain had the evacuation of Dunkirk to call upon for its recent, rousing wartime yarns, and Czech filmmaker Ševčík (along with fellow screenwriters Petr Kolečko and Alex Königsmark) has chosen the occupation of the Sudentenland to explore Czechoslovakia’s darkest hour. The drama unfurls via flashbacks from the sanatorium as Masaryk attempts to convince Neville Chamberlain (Paul Nicholas) to honour his pledge to oppose the Nazi occupation while all the while his own premier, Edvard Benes (Oldrich Kaiser) is selling the country down the river. Attempting to cram in a lot of history and political manoeuvring, this will all perhaps be easier to follow for those who already have a working knowledge of what happened.

That said, A Prominent Patient is a classily presented affair. There are some lovely compositions by cinematographer Martin Štrba (who shot Agnieszka Holland’s period mini-series, Burning Bush) and he manages to inject some energy in the requisite places. The visuals add exactly the kind of polish that this prestige picture is aiming for, and although there are a few far-travelling accents in the supporting cast, the whole thing is anchored by the typically-assured Roden.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson