Urban Cinefile
"I haven't noticed getting screwed up - "  -Dominique Swain after her role as Lolita
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



In 1960s Budapest, aspiring author Magda (Martina Gedeck) lives a comfortable life with her professional husband Tibor (Károly Eperjes) in their upmarket 2nd district apartment, across the road from the humble flats where Emerenc (Helen Mirren) sweeps the pavement every day. When Magda sees Emerence toil at some washing, she asks her to be their housekeeper. The brittle response doesn't augur well, but Emerence soon arrives on Magda's doorstep ready to work. Emerenc is difficult and complicated, but they struggle through the relationship - and jointly bring up a dog - while Magda's literary success grows. But no TV fame for Emerenc, who lives behind her closed door, where no-one is allowed to venture.

Review by Louise Keller:
Love, betrayal and forgiveness are the themes of István Szabó's emotionally powerful film in which the principles of two diametrically opposite women are revealed. The affecting nature of the story, based on a novel by Magda Szabó (no relation) translates despite the fact that the film has a formality and stilted quality about it that is distancing. In many ways it feels as though each scene is a self contained unit and there is a bridge to cross as the narrative connects to the next scene.

Additionally, the way Szabó has elected to address the language issue is a distraction, with some minor performances dubbed from Hungarian to English and a wide gap between Helen Mirren and Martina Gedeck's English accents. In analysis, it could be argued (if the film is going to be shot in English) that Mirren as the lower class maid Emerenc should have a slightly Cockney accent and Gedeck as the cultured Magda be more neutral; in practice it feels as though the characters are not in the same reality. Nonetheless, the emotions evoked are real and in the final analysis, there are tangible rewards to the journey, should you choose to embrace it.

Although I have not read the novel, the elements of the story are more conducive to prose: the powerful imagination of the reader can visualise far easier and is not confronted by issues such as variance in accents and the kind of problems faced by István Szabó (who also co-wrote the screenplay).

Although it is Magda who employs Emerenc, it is the maid who lays down the ground rules. Emerenc enters into Magda's erudite world whenever she chooses, yet Magda cannot go beyond the front door of Emerenc's humble home. What secrets lie behind it? Why does Viola, the dog that Magda found as a puppy, love Emerenc so unconditionally? What does it mean when a dog howls and glass cracks? There are many conversations between the two women of different classes in which their opposing points of view on key topics are made known, including faith and how far you are prepared to go for the sake of the person you love. The horrors left over from the war are never far away and the flashback scenes give us an insight into Emerenc's background.

Mirren paints a cohesive portrait of the brusque mannered maid with strongly felt principles, although she is far from a sympathetic character. For much of the film, I wondered why Magda continued to persevere with the relationship. Utilising all the sensitivity she brought to her memorable performance in The Lives of Others, Gedeck provides the warmth and vulnerability the film needs so badly. She is simply wonderful. While this is far from Szabó's best film, it is one that leaves resonance, accentuated by Schumann's haunting musical phrase expressed by a soulful violin that asks the question of life's eternal mysteries and truths.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The door of the title refers to the rather ordinary wooden door behind which lie the secrets that Emerenc (Helen Mirren) harbours; some painful and old, some playful and new. The contrast between her and the smartly dressed Magda (Martina Gedeck) in the larger, more luxurious apartment across the street couldn't be greater. Magda is happily married, for starters, while Emerenc lives in solitary self-confinement, nursing her demons and her robust, raw wisdom about life, which has been rather bitter to her. Magda is clever and educated, completing a novel she hopes is destined for recognition. Emerenc is a woman from the country, simple and only educated by life itself.

The work relies on the tension inherent in this contrast, fuelled by an obstinate and unusually brittle characterisation of Emerenc - so much so we can never quite believe it, notwithstanding the great Mirren's efforts. But then the whole enterprise seems like a creative miscalculation by all concerned. The dialogue is clumsy in translation, the great director István Szabó seems to have lost his subtlety and his eye for performance - and the lengthy timespan of the story is bungled and confused. In short, the book defeats the filmmakers, both in terms of teasing out its themes and in terms of executing a fine film.

The central theme of contrasting women battling through a turbulent relationship that is tainted by history is told in a rather heavy handed manner, with Emerence's deep-seated anger and pain driving her to extreme actions and reactions. Once we learn some of the events that have shaped her life and her persona, we understand the depth of the wounds, but this doesn't help and we remain distanced from the film and all the characters - both the women, Magda's husband Tibor (Károly Eperjes) and their neighbours.

It doesn't help that Szabó chooses not to establish the physical location in any sort of context; no wide shots, no streetscapes, no glimpses of Budapest at all, and very little visual information about the two contrasting home locations. We feel constrained and blinkered.

What works in prose as character building doesn't easily translate into cinematic action, at least not in this case. Even the flashbacks are problematic, as they try to visualise for us some dramatic moments from the past which haunt our characters. There is a tendency to overstate things here, as elsewhere in the film, which detracts from their intended impact.

Having been brought up in Budapest I am more sensitive to the nuances of the cultural and historical references, so it is no surprise that I am also critical of the decision to shoot it in English, with Mirren in the lead. Her culturally specific English sits oddly within the cultural environment for me, even more so than that of the other actors. It's one of the other hurdles the film never managed to negate for me.

Email this article

Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 1
Mixed: 1

(Hungary/Germany, 2012)

CAST: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, Károly Eperjes, Gábor Koncz, Enikö Börcsök, Mari Nagy, Ági Szirtes, Péter Andorai, Anna Szandtner, Réka Tenki

PRODUCER: Jenő Hábermann, Sándor Söth

DIRECTOR: István Szabó

SCRIPT: István Szabó, Andrea Vészits (novel by Magda Szabó [no relation])


EDITOR: Réka Lemhényi


RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes



© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020