A local legend in the mid-20th century Czech Republic who scrutinised the urine of his clients and made diagnoses based on a blend of science and mysticism, Jan Mikolášek is a prickly subject for Agnieszka Holland’s latest biographical drama. Its title notwithstanding, the film expends little energy exploring whether or not Mikolášek’s healing gift was genuine. The recurring shots of him glowering at his own hands suggest that it was real, and as much a curse as a blessing.
But Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan) does double duty as a character. Not only is he a conflicted man – impatient, impossibly demanding in his work and in his covert gay relationship with his assistant, Frantisek (Juraj Loj) – he also symbolises postwar eastern Europe, torn between political allegiances, progress and superstition, science and folklore.
There’s an austere elegance to Holland’s film-making, particularly in the frames within frames that box the permanently peevish Mikolášek into places he would prefer not to be, next to sick people he would prefer not to have to care for. But like the character it explores, Charlatan can seem rather dour at times. A more playful director might have let the amber hues of the ubiquitous pee samples seep into the colour palette, but Holland takes her cues from the greyish complexions of the ailing and the sticky blacks and greens of a gangrenous leg.