If you were to attempt to genetically engineer the perfect film for Karlovy Vary, Eastern Europe’s biggest film festival and one of the oldest in the world, your checklist of ingredients might include: an internationally revered film star lead, a respected veteran European director, a Central or Eastern European setting, and a story in which both the Holocaust and post-WW2 communism figure largely. Maybe throw in a little subtext about class division and gender roles for good measure. “The Door” is a new Helen Mirren film from Hungarian director István Szabó (“Meeting Venus,” “Being Julia,””Mephisto“), set in 1960s Budapest and detailing the relationship between a wealthy female novelist and a strong-willed cleaning lady, who may or may not be harbouring dark secrets regarding her actions during the war. It pretty much hits the jackpot, or rather it would have if it was good. It’s not.
The film’s problems manifest themselves early, often and intrusively. Aside from Mirren, the cast is largely Hungarian, with the other lead role taken by a German actress, Martina Gedeck, but they all speak in accented English. In itself this isn’t an issue, it’s a conceit we’re all used to, but here, the awkward second-language pronunciation is rendered even more marble-mouthed by some obvious dubbing, and the truly clumsy, and occasionally unintentionally funny, dialogue. The script feels as though it was written by someone without total command of the language, or written in a different language and translated into English; the non-colloquial phrases come forced and unnatural out of the actors’ mouths, and that’s not even mentioning the frequently redundant, frequently overwrought feel to the speech. A sample exchange occurs early on between the writer and her husband, as they watch from a window while Emerenc (Mirren) runs home in theatrical terror during a thunderstorm. “What is the matter with her?” whispers the wife. “She’s terrified by the storm. There must be some reason for that,” replies her husband, leadenly foreshadowing the later sequence which explains the origins of her astraphobia. And in a flashback later, Emerenc as a child is forced to watch the slaughter of her pet calf by her grandfather, who intones something along the lines of “You must look. You must! Because you must learn never to love! So you will never know the sorrow that caused your mother to take her own life!” We were a little jealous of the Czechs in the audience who got to read these words in subtitles, rather than try to be convinced by them emerging from a human mouth. In fact, we’re pretty much certain they had a better time than we did with the film for that reason.
But it’s not just the dialogue that chugs and clunks. The film is paced and edited very oddly, with long stretches of relative langor interrupted by bursts of sudden frenetic activity — the aforementioned flashback is a case in point. Narrated by Mirren in bizarrely breakneck-speed voiceover, the fateful thunderstorm is rendered as a moment of pure gothic, almost camp; this sits oddly amid the supposed naturalism the rest of the film tries to achieve. It feels like it comes from a different film. And the editing issues don’t stop there. They range from the macro: the way events in the film crash into each other, and the way people make inexplicably melodramatic choices and speeches with no relation to what came just before, to the micro: it’s not a big deal, but during Emerenc’s breakdown scene where she beats the dog it’s really hugely obvious she’s not actually beating the dog. The animal lover in us rejoices, but the film-goer despairs.
However, Mirren is consummately watchable, and here turns in a vanity-less performance in which she plays and looks her actual age, if not a little older. In unflattering clothes and clumpy shoes she’s a million miles from the chic, glamourous woman she is in person. And outside of her appearance, her performance is an interesting and totally committed one. Her Emerenc is sharp to the point of rude (and beyond that point occasionally), formidable, suspicious and stubborn. It’s a portrayal that’s commendable in making us understand how the woman can become so well-loved without ever stooping to being likeable. But even Mirren can’t quite sell us on the tonal contortions the script forces her to perform. She embodies the pragmatic, guarded, caustic character of Emerenc rather brilliantly, but the film’s lapses into hysterical, overegged melodrama do not serve her well.
We get very little sense of time and place, though both are potential sources of great interest: perhaps it’s the English again, but we never really get a feel for Budapest or Hungary, as the geography of the film, outside of flashback, is mostly confined to two houses, a street and later a hospital. And while the costumes and set dressing are no doubt period accurate, we don’t really feel the ’60s either — Gedeck’s character being a successful female novelist in the days before women’s lib is all but unremarked upon, and a gossamer-thin subplot in which she worries about the ramifications of accepting an award from the Communist regime evaporates as quickly as it appears.
The truth is, that were Mirren not in this film there would be no reason to see it at all. And even with her in it, at the height of her powers and undeniably committed to the role, it still barely passes muster. A disappointing missed opportunity for what could have been a banner film for the region, with international appeal. [C]