Helen Mirren and István Szabó (The Door)
by Alex Deleon, for <filmfestivals.com>
Dame Helen Mirren, patently the dominant figure of the first two days, held court on Saturday morning at the first official festival press conference. As Helen Mirrenová she is getting front page coverage in the Czech daily press in the manner of visiting royalty and her gracefully smiling visage adorns the cover of the widely read TVstar weekly with a bold gold lettered caption reading "Rebelka s modrou krví"
or, "Lady Rebel with Blue Blood".
Although her husband American director Taylor Hackford was seated next to her at the press table Helen was clearly the focus of attention and most questions were directed to her although at certain points she did make an effort to draw her husband into the dialogue. Taylor is merely her consort on this trip although it was during the shooting of his 1985 film “White Nights” that she met him and eventually married him. Mirren radiates the impression of an ultimately liberated woman and claims that she never intended to get married at all before she met Hackford and did not actually legalize their relationship until 1997. Nevertheless, during the conference the couple referred to each other as “my husband” and “my wife”, rather than by name, indicating that this is more than a convenient professional pairing. Since White Nights their careers have followed separate trajectories although she did work with her husband on one other film “Love Ranch”, 2003, about the first legal brothel in Nevada.
Aside from her undisputed talent as an actress Helen has been known for exposing liberal amounts of skin when called upon to do so. She had a big part in the sexually explicit and highly controversial “Caligula” in 1979 and bared all or almost all as late as 2003 in the British film “Calendar Girls” which was a kind of feminine answer to “The Full Monty” masculine nudie of 1997.
Mirren has been an outspoken defender of nudity in her profession in numerous articles and interviews (SEE "Google: Helen Mirren and nudity") but admitted here that it entails aspects of both empowerment and exploitation, which must be taken into consideration when called upon to comply to the demands of an assignment requiring disrobing.
Asked if she would ever want to direct a film she said “I am an actress not a director. I love my work and think of it as my chosen destiny. However I hope to see many more female directors in the future”. This is clearly a woman who not only loves to work but thrives on it such that she still looks great at an age when most actresses are setttling for walk-on granny roles.
Regarding the extreme contrasts in her portrayals of the queen of England and the humble housekeeper of Szabo’s “The Door” the actress said that playing Emerence, the Hungarian cleaning woman with a mysteriously dark past, "was honestly, one of the hardest things I have ever done. Because of the Central European historical aspects under Communism and the unfamiliar Hungarian background I felt a heavy weight of responsibility playing the role. I kept feeling that I was falling short and had to put myself completely in the director’s hands, so it was really difficult”. The only easy part, she added, was that the role required absolutely no malk-up –plain Jane all the way…
In contrast, playing the still sitting queen of England was relatively easy. Queen Elizabeth is remarkably liberal in that she does not exercise any control over people who do her portrait. As an artist or as an actress it’s your impression of who you think the queen is. I thought of my work as simply another portrait.
Here husband Hackford chimed in and remarked that he was surprised to see that when Helen was preparing her Queen role she only studied footage and pictures of Elizabeth as a child. Mirren explained that the reason for this was that once crowned her image as queen was fixed, but in order to find the person behind the image it was necessary for her to understand the child within.
In her next project, now in post-production, she will be playing Alma Reville, wife of Alfred Hitchcock in a film about the making of “Psycho”. Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock will be her co-star and she is very happy to be working with him for the first timer after all these years. “We come from very similar backgrounds in British theater but have never a actually worked together before”. Alma Reville was a close collaborator of the renowned English suspense master – “Talk about one of the great unsung heroines of cinema!”.
Asked if she had to give up one or the other, cinema or film, which would it be – Mirren said she would have to go with cinema because of the comraderie and family atmosphere that grows around a film project.
Szabo and Mirren open The Door
On Sunday afternoon “The Door” was presented to an overpacked house in the vast Velki Zal or Grand Hall of the festival with both Dame Mirren and director Istvan Szabo in attendance. The guidelines are a bit looser on certain occasions so by “overpacked” I mean that not only was every seat in the gigantic parterre and large balcony taken, but the broad aisles were also filled wall to wall with fans willing to watch the film sprawled on the floor from uncomfortable angles – this at an afternoon screening, not an evening gala. The Mirren mystique is in the air.
The actress, clad now in light summer wear and sandals addresses the throng at length and finally introduces Mr. Szabo standing with a group of producers behind her. Szabo now stepped forward and speaking in English cautioned the audience to expect a kind of small chamber piece and to exercise patience. He closed his own remarks by expressing his undying love for actors saying that good actor give a director their face and everything else needed to make a great film. He then pointedly embraced Ms. Mirren and gave her a peck on the cheek – and the film started. On the extremely large great hall screen it looked more like a full orchestral presentation than a chamber piece although much of the music was from chamber selections by Robert Schuman.
The film opens with full screen flashes of thunder and lightning suggesting that we are about to see a Gothic tale but whateverr Gothicness there is lurks in the background of the sunconscious. Mirren's no make-up condition was strarkly evident from the first scene where we see a totally no frills elderly woman (Mirren) dressed practically in rags and stumpy shoes compulsively sweeping up the pavement in front of the elegant house in which lives Magda, (Gedeck) the wealthy writer and her unwell husband Tibor (Eperjes Karoly). A title places the story in the year 1960 which is four years after the aborted uprising against the Russians and Hungary has settled back into the depths of Communism. Without getting into a detailed review what develops is an unlikely bond between the scruffy abrasive peasant cleaning woman, Emerence, and the elgant well dressed intellectual bourgeoise writer Magda as her unwell husband Tibor looks on with discontent. A fourth protagonist in this strange menage-a-trois is the large dog kept by Emence, while a toy ceramic dog will also come into this complicated picture of strained relations that somehow have a healing effect on the people under strain. However, although Mirren is an undeniable force of nature as an actress her British accents undermine her credibillity as a Hungarian peasant and German actress Martina Gedeck is perhaps a touch too beautiful and soft to be convincing as a hard edge writer like Magda Szabo, while Eperjes who is a marvelous actor in Hungarian films, comes off a bit like a Hungarian Colonel Blimp when dubbed into English -- although his strong personality still comes through, often with comic effect. Eventually Emence will die and another lady, Eva Grosserovna, will show up to shed some light on Emence's shadowy contacts with Jews in WW II. All this is lushly filmed by a leading Hungarian cinematographer, Elemer Ragaly, and directed by Szabo with his customary classical aplomb so that the film looks great and flows easily even if it strains to convey the subtle Hungarian nuances of the original novel.
The bottom line:
This is indeed an elegant rarified chamber drama of manners, but with a very conventional mise-en-scene and English dialogue so unsuited to the original material that it often sounds just this side of being force fed into a recalcitrant Hungarian mold. Nevertheless, the audience in the Great Hall, captivated and enthralled by Dame Mirren's personal charm and charisma, as well as a closeup look at a famous director like Szabo, gave the film a solid round of applause lasting several minutes and another round of applause when the lengthy final creidits finished rolling. In a word, this festival audience loved it but it must be noted that most were reading the film through Czech subtitles which may have covered up some of the flaws. It is clear that Mr. Szabo gets a special charge out of associating himself with Oscar winning women like Helen Mirren and Annete Benning (Being Julia, 2004) but trying to cast a completely Hungarian subject into a vehicle for non-Hungarian actors is pushing the envelope and was simply not the best solution for the screen adaptation of the Magda Szabo novel in question. Director Szabo has the name and clout to get the kind of funding outside of Hungary that would never be available to him in the faltering Hungarian economy at home but it sems that the great auteur of monumental films like "Mephisto" ( Oscar winner in 1981) no longer has that kind of broad vision. This Door, while in a way an intellectual treat and a Helen Mirren virtuoso assignment, is not very likely to get much beyond the limits of the art house circuit, although the curiosity factor of seeing the real Helen Mirren behind the makeup may sell a few tickets elsewhere.
Other films of interest coming up: "Estrada de Palha" desribed as a Zen Western from Portugal, "Peleh Akhar" (The last step), Iran, starring actress Leila Hatami in her follow-up to "A Separation" the film that swept all prizes at Berlin and also got her an Oscar in Hollywood, and "Yuma", a violent Polish film about border smuggling that resonates with the classic western "3:10 To Yuma" although the title has a different meaning in Polish.