THE DOOR. Starring: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, and Karoly Eperjes. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Rated M (Mature themes). 98 min.
This is a film based on the book of the same name written by Hungary’s well-known woman novelist and playwright, Magda Szabo - who is not related to the Director of the movie. The film conveys autobiographical aspects of the late Szabo's life.
The indomitable Helen Mirren plays the role of an elderly housekeeper, Emerence, who forms an emotional relationship with Magda, the novelist (Martina Gedeck). The film is set in Budapest in the 1960s, and captures intelligently the different levels of society which existed in Hungary at that time.
A wealthy couple, Magda and her husband, Tibor (Karoly Eperjes), move into a large house suited to their social stature and style of life. They come upon a washerwoman (Helen Mirren), who treats them in a blunt and off-putting way. Magda is tolerant of Emerence’s seeming insults, but she talks her into cleaning their house. Both Magda and her husband appreciate Emerence’s cooking and cleaning, and they decide to put up with her oddness, which includes her entering their bedroom unannounced, and her insisting on placing "kitsch" objects (as Magda describes them) like a ceramic dog and sea shells, in a house filled with elegant furniture. There are secrets about Emerence’s past, however, which raise questions in Magda's mind about Emerence’s actions during the war. Emerence is hiding Jewish property that is not hers.
With time, and despite the obvious class differences, a strong and deep emotional attachment is forged between Magda and Emerence that is portrayed very movingly by both Mirren and Gedeck. As the relationship unfolds, we see the strengths and weaknesses of both women. They are both independent and strong-willed people, but each comes to understand the other.
In the movie (paralleling real life) Magda’s latest novel is criticised for its treatment of Communism, but it is enjoyed by Hungary’s Minister of culture, and he beckons her to Budapest to receive a literary prize for her work. Magda goes, just as Emerence falls ill, and Emerence’s health crisis ends the relationship between the two women. Magda does what she can to protect Emerence in what she thinks is a caring, loving way, but she inadvertently betrays Emerence by violating her privacy and self-respect.
The film is masterful story-telling, as it has been advertised, and there are many unforgettable moments in the recollections of the two strong-willed women. Mirren, in particular, brings great feeling to her role. Her talent has ranged widely from comedy (Calendar Girls, 2003), to dramatic impersonation (The Queen, 2006), Greek tragedy on stage (Phaedra, 2009), and war-time espionage (The Debt, 2011). Here, she gives her all to the role, and she makes the movie.
This is a movie that has considerable strength. Its plot has political ramifications, but its main focus is on the dramatic development of the personalities of Magda and Emerence, and their bonding together across class. The fact that the story is true, and that the relationship actually existed, lends authenticity to the film.
There are problems with the film.There is some clumsy dubbing, loose editing, and moments of excessive sentimentality, but the force of the drama overcomes the hitches. The power of the story, and the acting of the two leads make this a quality film that deserves to be appreciated.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out July 19th 2012.