Agnieszka Holland continues to bring unknown historical figures to a wider audience in the intriguing Charlatan, weaving a tale of one man’s dedication to bringing medicine to the masses and the ever-changing society that eventually brought him down.
Jan Mikolášek is a towering figure of Czech history who is little known outside of the country’s own borders — a man whose life is intertwined with some of the major events in the early twentieth century — who provided herbal cures to thousands of people throughout his life, diagnosing their illness by simply looking at a sample of their urine. As his popularity grows, in the background lurks the turbulence of the world wars, a Nazi invasion, and the Communist regime.
Mikolášek’s portrayal is brought to life by two tender performances from Ivan Trojan as the young man, and his father Josef Trojan who takes the role throughout the majority of the film. There is something in the portrayal of this legendary figure of Czech history that is akin to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread – difficult, nuanced, an occasionally unsympathetic character that has hidden depths.
After saving his sister from amputation by using the plants and herbs in his family’s garden, Mikolášek undertakes an apprenticeship with a local healer woman, who teaches him the art that leads to his moniker of “the oracle of urine”. Years later, in the late 1930s, the business/makeshift hospital that he runs out of an old house has grown significantly and, after hiring the young and eager František Palko (Juraj Loj) as an assistant, the two men start a relationship.
There is a bit of everything in Charlatan — historical tension, slight mysticism and a queer romance that binds it all together — as Mikolášek navigates a world that swings between devotion to his medicine and outright condemnation of his practices. It is this pick ‘n’ mix approach that does detract from the narrative, as the timeline skips back and forth it is hard to remember what element of the plot is going to be focused on. The central, urgent and hidden romance between Palko and Mikolášek spans years, never waving in its intensity with devastating effects.
While Charlatan is an interesting film, it’s the tendency to weave back and forth through history with often little follow-through that ultimately leaves it uneven. While not as narratively or stylistically strong as Holland’s most recent film Mr Jones, Charlatan brings to life yet another intriguing story about the unknown characters in the not-so-distant past.