Starring: Václav Neckár, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský
Director: Jiri Menzel
Running Time: 93 mins
Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) is a Czechoslovakian film about a young man working as a train station attendant in Second World War-era Czechoslovakia who, despite finally losing his virginity, begins to lose confidence when it doesn’t go quite as well as he wanted.
This is an interesting film, in that it combines some fantastically dark drama and history with an excellent sense of humour that makes it far more entertaining to watch than I expected. With excellent directing and acting, that’s carried out brilliantly throughout the film, and although the story isn’t quite as gripping as the humour is entertaining, I was impressed by Closely Observed Trains.
I think the place to start with this film is the directing. On the one hand, its drab and dark visuals fit perfectly with the comedic take on small communities, but on the other, it’s still got an impressively serious side to it. The pacing is very slow, and director Jiri Menzel gives the film’s most emotionally important moments a lot of dramatic focus, moving away from the comedic atmosphere. On the whole, it works really well, and is very impressive to see, proving the main thing that makes the film so engaging to watch.
The humour is another important talking point with Closely Observed Trains. This isn’t your sort of Fellini/Godard-esque meta-humour, despite some of the film’s similarity to his style, but instead a distinctly Northern European-style black comedy. So, a lot of what happens may seem dark on the outside, but if you can tap into what the director and writers are going for, portraying depressing and pathetic events in a comedic light, it can be a really entertaining and engrossing film.
Moving on, the performances here are very strong. In the lead role, Václav Neckár is excellent, bringing across the young man’s nervousness in seeking his first sexual encounter, and then managing to portray both the funny side of his reaction, as well as a deeper and more morbid emotion, which was very impressive to see. The supporting cast is great too, all meshing the sort of characters we’re used to seeing in this historical context with more comedic and unpredictable personalities, making for even more good intrigue and entertainment.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about Closely Observed Trains, but if there’s one thing that disappointed me, it’s the way the story pans out. Yes, it’s all pretty entertaining to watch, and the more dramatic sequences are just as effective, but I felt that the film’s plot lost its way a little as it became a more and more personal and emotional story.
Of course, I’m not watching it to be made to laugh out loud, but I felt that in comparison to the first act in particular, where we’ve got this powerfully dark yet humorous atmosphere that surrounds the still and frustrated life of this young man, the film’s more emotional moments didn’t have that same sort of unique power for me, and I was never quite as engrossed by the latter stages as the opening act.
That said, Closely Observed Trains is still a good film. Its darkly comedic atmosphere is by far its most memorable quality, something backed up by excellent direction and performances, as well as an engaging, albeit not entirely engrossing plot, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.4.