Dir: Julius Ševčík | Cast: Karel Roden, Hanns Zischler, Oldřich Kaiser, Arly Jover, Paul Nicholas, Dermot Crowley, Milton Welsh. Eva Herzigová, Emília Vášáryová, | Czech/Slovak Republic | Czech, English | 114 min ·
Philosopher Tomas Masaryk became the first President and founder of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and was an advocate of Czechoslovak independence during the First World War. He also championed the country’s Jewish population knowing how hard it was to build a sense of pride in a people with a history of subjugation. Of his two sons – one died of typhoid – this is the story of Jan Garrigue Masaryk (1886-1948), a mentally unstable bon viveur whose engaging cynicism served him well as Czechoslovakian Ambassador in London’s Hampstead in the run up to the Second World War.
Directed by Julius Ševčík this gripping and lushly-mounted imagined drama focuses on a tight window in wartime politics alternating between historical and fictionalised plotlines as it sashays suavely between London, Prague and a New Jersey sanatorium, where after the death of his father in 1938, Masaryk (a convincing Karel Roden) is supported by German psychiatrist Dr Stein – a saturnine Hans Zischler – and a charming American journalist Marcia Davenport (played gracefully by Arly Jover).
As a result of diplomatic tactics and the signing of the Munich Agreement, Britain and France condone Nazi Germany’s invasion of his country – bringing Europe one step closer to the Second World War. Masaryk believes he has failed as a diplomat, lost credibility in the eyes of the powers that be, and brought shame on the legacy of his father, Tomas.
A PROMINENT PATIENT follows Masaryk closely during his time as Ambassador showing how the tense political and social ambiance played tricks with his delicate mental disposition. Martin Strba’s agile camera glides impressively over Prague and London often tracking top secret negotiations in the privacy of fast moving vehicles, hurtling along the beaches of the South Coast. Ševčík plays fast and loose with the facts and political purists will no doubt throw their hands up in horror at some of the scenes, but this is nevertheless an enjoyable romp that will appeal to arthouse audiences with its elegant settings, engaging performances and terrier-like pacing contrasting with more languorous scenes such as those between Masaryk and his married English lover, Lady Anne Higgins (Gina Bramhill).
Whether or not Masaryk did indeed receive treatment in America is uncertain, but the idea that he was mentally unstable is the conceit on which Ševčík and his scripters Petr Kolečko and Alex Königsmark base their narrative. And it is certainly a ploy that serves this drama well offering a sinister and unsettling undertow to the recognised uncertainty of the political climate on the cusp of the Second World War. MT
BERLINALE 2017 PREMIERE | HISTORY TODAY