Eye For Film >> Movies >> Charlatan (2020) Film Review
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
There's a polished feel to this historic drama from Agnieszka Holland, which is "loosely" inspired by the life of Czech herbalist Jan Mikolásek and which, like many films emerging from the former Soviet states of late, is firmly rooted in the impact of constant regime change on individual citizens. It's soon evident that the film does not subscribe to the label of the film's title being applied to Mikolásek (played with a deliberate stiffness by Ivan Trojan that may turn off some viewers) who, to underscore his 'honest' credentials is seen telling people more than once in the course of the film that he is not a doctor.
But while he may not have been a charlatan in the medical sense, whatever his opponents may have suggested, we will come to see that saving the lives of many stands in positive relief against his flaws in terms of his personal life and interactions. To use the word "flaws" is to understate it, as there are moments when Mikolásek is so casually monstrous it is jaw dropping, particularly when it comes to his assistant-turned-lover Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) and the wife he has elsewhere. This stark contrast is mirrored by his work, with his diagnoses being given after he gazes into the honeyed glow of vial after vial of human urine - lent such a beautiful quality by cinematographer Martin Strba as it glints in the sunlight that we too become fascinated.
After starting near the end of the story, Marek Epstein's script dips back and forth in time, encompassing Mikolásek's traumatic experiences of the Second World War (when he is played by Trojan's own son Josef, adding to the film's ring of truth) before learning his trade from an elderly woman (Jaroslava Pokorná). Alongside the daily queues of regular citizens that await treatment, it also highlights his ministering to everyone from Nazis to Czech president Antonín Zápotocký, the death of whom will be a catalyst for Mikolásek's enemies to haul him before the court on trumped up charges - court scenes that will take up the latter portion of the film.
Holland has an assured hand on the tiller so we never feel lost despite the sprawling time periods. The script, however, mirrors the stiffness of Mikolásek, so that though the director and stars bring a frisson to the relationship between Palko and his boss - the most fictive element of the plot - the script falls short in terms of fleshing out what lies beneath. Thanks to the graceful flow Holland achieves, the film is absorbing in terms of dramatic sweep but on a personal level it's more frustrating as Mikolásek remains a stubborn enigma to the last.