Featuring: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, Károly Eperjes
Director: István Szabó
Writers: István Szabó, Andrea Vészits
Australian release date: July 19, 2012
Writer Magda (Martina Gedeck) and her professional something-or-other husband Tibor (Károly Eperjes) live in a comfortable city apartment in post-war Budapast. When Magda makes the seemingly masochistic decision to offer enigmatic, reclusive and cantankerous elderly neighbour Emerenc (Helen Mirren) a position as housekeeper/cook, their initially volatile and thorny relationship seems destined for an abrupt and unpleasant end. However, Magda perseveres with the riddle that is Emerenc, and over years, tragic aspects of her past slowly emerge.
What’s with Hungarian actors speaking English in a Hungarian film? Why not perform in the native tongue, with subtitles? And what’s with Helen Mirren in the lead, doing some weird accent combining Hungarian-tinged English with a bit o working-woman-from-England?
Early signs not good, but b-b-baby you ain’t seen n-nothin’ yet.
Where to start? Well, it doesn’t matter much. It’s a sad case of pin the tail on the disaster. This is dire in virtually any area you care to specify.
Acting (accents aside)? ‘Theatrical’ and amateurish. Mirren seems uncertain, bewildered even. As well she might.
Director István Szabó on set with Helen Mirren (“Sorry, István, but I don’t quite understand…”)
The narrative bumbles along unevenly, never recovering from its dodgy premise (Magda’s motivation in hiring the rude, curmudgeonly, judgmental, opinionated, domineering, serial-plate-smashing and thoroughly bilious Emerenc is never explained). Occasionally, the storyline bolts off on desperate – and laughably melodramatic – tangents in vain hope of redemption. To wit, a scene in which a mother suicides by jumping into a well after coming across the charred and still upright remains of two young daughters struck by lightning…some families have no luck at all.
Then there is a follow-up scene in which the father/husband of this hapless bunch forces his remaining daughter to watch her beloved pet calf being slaughtered and butchered to ensure she grows up without feeling. Why? So she will not be moved to suicide as her mother was, whatever calamitous event might befall her! Goodness gracious moi. Sometimes there are no words…
The exposition is as laboured and clumsy as it gets, and mostly effected through the reminiscing of peripheral characters whose only real function is to reveal details of Emerenc’s sorry past.
The characterisation is, quite simply, inept. Emerenc is full of contradictions, which is not necessarily implausible in itself, but her psychology makes no sense. For example, with all the irrational zeal of an OCD sufferer she risks her health sweeping snow from the sidewalk night and day, as long as it falls (and in Budapest, that’s a hell of a lot, it seems), yet behind the door to her modest dwelling that she keeps shut to the outside world she lives in sloth and filth. She is assertively and bitterly atheist, yet on her sickbed tells Magda of her intention to look after her from beyond the grave. I could go on, but let me err on the side of kindness and mercy.
Magda enjoys a stroll in the midst of Budapest summer
And Magda is supposedly a brilliant writer, yet she presents as dull and mundane, bereft of wit, incisive thought, or any other qualities that might so much as whisper of her extraordinary literary talents.
The only other character of any note, Tibor, spends most of his screen time sitting around looking bemused and chewing on his dinner. The poor bloke really appears not to know what he’s required to do. And who can blame him? Indeed, his primary raison d’être, it would seem, is to bring out Emerenc’s mystic side – she senses correctly that he is seriously ill with lung disease (turns out to be TB), and prophesises his early demise. This is a narrative red herring; after surgery on a lung ‘tumour’ he appears to make a full recovery. Certainly his post-rehabilitation appetite is healthy going by his animated mastication…
Forgive the cheesy segue, but this thing gobbles, and when it’s not gobbling, it barks. Honestly, professional camera work aside, it could have been the project of a first year film class collaborating with members of the nearest suburban amateur theatre group (no offence, guys).
That’s more than enough, but I can’t go without sharing a standout line with you. Emerenc is out on her sidewalk, sweeping it clear of falling snow, when Magda happens by on her way to church. She expresses concern for Emerenc, urging her to go inside out of the cold. Emerenc replies: “Jesus swept.”
Helen, what – oh what – were you thinking?
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives