Date: July 21 2012
When Meryl Streep won an Oscar this year for playing Margaret Thatcher, she warmly thanked J. Roy Helland, the make-up man on all her films - clearly a genius in the art of transformation.
But there are times when an actor can generate just the impact she needs by leaving the make-up off. Pick the right movie and the decision to ditch all traces of vanity can score an Oscar nomination based on bravery alone.
I'm guessing this is the effect Helen Mirren is after in The Door, the latest film from Hungarian director Istvan Szabo. Dressed down in headscarf, black pinafore, lisle stockings and boots, she plays a cook and cleaning woman who comes to work for a novelist and her husband in a Budapest suburb in the 1960s. It's a role full of flinty close-ups, with Mirren's scrubbed face making no concessions at all to her offscreen persona as a mature-age glamour girl.
It's an English-language adaptation of a partly autobiographical novel by Magda Szabo (no relation to the director), who died in 2007, having become one of Hungary's best-read and most respected writers after years of having her work banned or censored under successive communist regimes.
Mirren's Emerenc, the housekeeper, has had an equally turbulent life and she and her employer eventually form a close friendship, but thanks to Emerenc's unique take on the master-servant relationship, there are many rocky patches along the way. She sets the tone from the start. The novelist, Magda (German actor Martina Gedeck), is told Emerenc doesn't keep house for just anyone who comes along. First she must decide if Magda and her husband, Tibor (Karoly Eperjes), are worth the effort. And they don't get the good news until she turns up without warning one day and declares she's ready to go to work.
Her idiosyncratic routines then begin to dominate the household. She's likely to walk unannounced into their bedroom and they have to put up with her banging about late at night because she's been too busy to come during the day. Even more unnerving are her rare displays of affection. Typical is her gift of a small china animal, which is left on the bookshelf where its cheesiness can be guaranteed to offend the fastidious Tibor several times a day.
In contrast, Emerenc's own privacy is sacrosanct. No one is allowed into her flat. Friends and neighbours are entertained on the porch whatever the weather, and her front step is obsessively swept clear of autumn leaves, winter snow and anything else that gets too close.
It's a laughable set-up. Hollywood would probably make a sitcom out of it, but Szabo struggles to raise a wry smile. Not that he's really trying. Comedy is not his favourite thing. His best films have dealt with moral conflict and compromise, and they make a long and distinguished list. To name just a few, there are his collaborations with actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, starting with Mephisto in 1981, and more recently Taking Sides (2001) - about German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler's battle to maintain his integrity under Nazi rule.
Emerenc, too, had her courage put to the test during the war and its aftermath, as we learn through flashbacks, and her story should be a perfect fit for Szabo's style, but something's gone seriously wrong in translation. He's admitted he has trouble working in English, so why didn't he get some help?
There's a lot of badly dubbed dialogue from the supporting cast and the performance he gets from Mirren is not just cranky, it's belligerent. Emerenc barks out orders, tosses inflammatory non sequiturs about and keeps her bemused employers permanently off-balance with her unexpected confidences and gruff admissions of regard. And Gedeck, who was so good in Mostly Martha (2001) and The Lives of Others (2006), can't make any sense of Magda. She flounders, veering between girlishness and the sulks, and for some reason she's fond of parading around in a swimsuit whenever the sun comes out and everyone else remains buttoned up. Maybe some political point is being made. The meritocracy lounges while the proletariat gets on with it. If so, it's never made clear. Although Szabo's score of silent close-ups, pregnant with meaning, is more than enough to match Downton Abbey's, Magda's swimsuits don't even raise an eyebrow.
The syrupy lighting doesn't work, either, and the editing is choppy and overemphatic, with the flashbacks shot in black and white, as if we can't be trusted to identify them.
Szabo's last English-language film, Being Julia, won Annette Bening a Golden Globe. But with that one, he did have some help with the vernacular. His script was by Ronald Harwood, who had worked on a story by Somerset Maugham.
This time he wrote the script himself in collaboration with another Hungarian, Andrea Veszits. Bad move. Despite Mirren's act of conspicuous bravery, he has produced a dud and in light of all he's given us in the past, it's a mysterious aberration.
Directed by Istvan Szabo
Rated M, 97 minutes
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