Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Istvan Szabo
Stars: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, Karoly Eperjes.
Hungarian director Istvan Szabo normally makes films that explore big themes and are unafraid to tackle important issues (the Oscar winning Mephisto, Sunshine, etc). By contrast his latest film The Door is a slight and disappointing effort even though it deals with themes of love, friendship, betrayal, and the way that the past impacts on a person’s life. Adapted from a novel written by Magda Szabo (no relation to the director) the film has a semi-autobiographical feel to it as well, and it resonated strongly with the director.
The film is set in 1960’s Hungary and explores the friendship that develops between two women from different ends of the social spectrum. However, the relationship that develops between the two gradually highlights the strengths of one while revealing the weakness of the other.
Magda (Martina Gedeck, from The Lives Of Others, etc) is the wealthy wife of businessman Tibor (Karoly Eperjes), and is also an aspiring writer. Emerenc (Helen Mirren) is an elderly cleaning woman who lives across the street, but is haunted by her past and horrible events. Every day Emerenc sweeps the street outside the block of flats where she lives. On a whim, Magda asks Emerenc to be their housekeeper, to clean house, do their laundry and cook their meals. A brittle friendship develops between the two as they bond over Viola, Magda’s dog that readily responds to Emerenc.
The contrasts between the two is well drawn – Magda is rich, cultures and well educated, whereas Emerenc is a poor, illiterate girl from the country who has been badly damaged by life but holds strong opinions on life, politics and society in general. She still suffers from memories of traumatic events in the past, and is scared by thunderstorms. Emerenc is a deeply private person who refuses to let anyone inside her small apartment. What secrets does her home hold?
The horror of the war still seems to hang over events like a dark shadow, although Szabo gives us little insight into the culture and history of his locations. This is surprising since the film is set in Hungary that was still ruled by a repressive Communist regime. Szabo directs in unsentimental fashion. Cinematographer Berner Ragalyi’s visuals are surprisingly bland and fail to bring the locations to life. Flashbacks are shot in a greyish colour that adds little to their dramatic impact. And the narrative drags far too often, with many flat spots that lack urgency or emotional punch.
However the two central performances are excellent although dramatic sparks never really fly in the occasional confrontations between the two. Emerenc is far from a sympathetic character, and Mirren plays her with a brusqueness, steely resolve and abrasive manner that suits. Mirren has deliberately eschewed make-up and dresses rather frumpily here to play the elderly Emerenc, and her lack of surface beauty and vanity is suited to the withdrawn and solitary character. Gedeck brings a warmth and vulnerability to her performance.
The language issue is something of a distraction too. The actors speak in fractured English, or have been crudely dubbed, which also ruins the artifice of this movie that was shot on location in Budapest.
Unfortunately the film is a huge disappointment. Many scenes end abruptly, and Reka Lemhenyi’s editing is choppy. The Door may well have worked superbly as a novel where more detail was offered about the characters and the setting, but unfortunately something seems to have been lost in the translation to the screen.