Though it’s refreshing to see a prestige picture pass the Bechdel test with flying colors — hell, this movie basically consists of two women talking about everything but men — vet Magyar director Istvan Szabo’s “The Door” is, unfortunately, starchy and conventional in just about every other respect. This unmoving English-language adaptation of Magda Szabo’s bestselling page-turner stars a deglammed Helen Mirren as a disagreeable cleaning lady hired by a bourgeois novelist, played by Martina Gedeck, in 1960s Hungary. Already released in Mitteleuropa in a (no doubt superior) dubbed version, this mothball-scented, Europudding-accented drama won’t open many other theatrical doors.
The novel by Szabo, no relation of the director, is a cleverly constructed, partially autobiographical work that aims for a big emotional payoff as it slowly reveals why the no-nonsense Emerenc (Mirren), the working-class cleaner of well-off writer Magda (Gedeck), is so secretive about her past, lets no one into her modest home and has particularly outspoken views on life, politics, religion and people’s role in society. Though technically a servant, Emerenc clearly doesn’t tolerate other people telling her what to do.
But the many contradictions in her character and the conflicts this generates with her station and complicated past are never convincingly drawn. To complicate matters even further, the screenplay by Szabo and Andrea Veszits is unable to suggest why Magda, even less of a developed character than Emerenc, would keep on a hand who not only has a habit of telling off her employer but who comes and goes at ungodly hours.
Add to this the conspicuous lack of a larger political and historical context — personal freedom and labor-related obligations would seem like subjects that would resonate in a Soviet-communist framework — and the pic becomes an unconvincing and rather dull series of scenes in which two women talk a lot but don’t say all that much. When the film gets around to the big reveal, after numerous color-drained flashbacks, it’s more of a shoulder-shrugging moment than an emotional thunderclap.
Mirren, as frumpy as she’s ever been onscreen, but with her trademark steely demeanor intact, is fine as Emerenc, somehow making the intermittently stilted dialogue sound almost natural. Gedeck (“The Lives of Others”), playing essentially a spectator to Emerenc’s unraveling, struggles to develop any interest in her character, and occasionally sounds awkward in English. At least her lines haven’t been dubbed in what sounds like an echo chamber, as is the case with some of the supporting characters, such as Tibor (Karoly Eperjes), Magda’s pleasant but narratively superfluous husband.
Apart from the dialogue and contextual issues, Szabo has crafted another technically impeccable feature. Lensing by Elemer Ragalyi, with its warm sunlight in summer, and cold, white-skied luminosity in winter, feels conventional, but is otherwise immaculate. A similar verdict can be rendered over Volker Shaefer’s production design and Gyorgyi Szakacs’ costumes. Recurring musical leitmotif further adds to the pic’s old-fashioned feel.