A female writer (Martina Gedeck) struggling for success employs an elderly woman, Emerence (Helen Mirren), to be her housekeeper, but from their first encounter, it is clear that she is no ordinary maid. Although everyone in the neighbourhood knows and respects her, no one knows anything about her private life or has ever been allowed to enter her home. However, a dramatic event in the writer's life prompts Emerence to unveil glimpses of her traumatic past, which sheds light on her very peculiar behaviour.

Mirren and Gedeck shine but stirring Hungarian drama has its faults.

Born in 1938, Hungarian director István Szabó endured World War II, the country’s bloody revolution in 1956, decades of Communist repression and the embarrassing revelation in 2006 that he had been an informant for the secret police in the late 1950s.

The narrative drags at times, despite the crisp running time

So when he read The Door, a semi-autobiographical novel by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó (no relation), published in 1987, the tome resonated strongly. Set near Budapest in the 1960s, it’s the tale of the often fractious relationship between a prosperous novelist and her elderly housekeeper, who harbours secrets from the war years.

Ms. Szabó died in 2007 and so did not live to see The Door, a faithful adaptation of the novel scripted by the director and Andrea Vészits. The drama features impressive performances from German actress Martina Gedeck as the writer Magda and Helen Mirren as her far from servile servant Emerenc, but the film is marred by several flaws.

The most obvious is Emerenc herself, who, despite Mirren’s artistry, comes across as such an abrasive, melancholy and withdrawn woman that audiences may well understand her erratic behaviour but feel little empathy. Indeed, the character is so sour and unyielding one wonders why Magda continues to employ her, let alone support and protect her.

Also dubious is the tactic of dubbing, often sloppily, many of the minor characters in English: It’s disconcerting to hear villagers in 1960s Hungary speaking in plummy English accents.

The narrative drags at times, despite the crisp running time, resulting in several longueurs in between explosions of anger, confrontation or tears.

Magda and her husband Tibor (Károly Eperjes) move into a spacious, elegantly furnished house. Magda offers the job of housekeeper to Emerenc, who lives nearby in a small flat.

The two women are chalk and cheese, and Emerenc is often rude and brusque, which would try anyones patience. Magda is a devout Catholic whereas her maid has no faith, snorting, 'I saw how God works during the war." The elderly woman freaks out in a thunderstorm (which looks fake, perhaps because insufficient money was spent on the CGI) for reasons that are later explained.

Emerenc shows kindness and compassion when Tibor falls ill, Magda warms to her and a fragile bond forms, but there are further strains and conflicts.

Magda’s latest novel is lambasted by the Communist press but is admired by the minister of culture and she’s invited to Budapest to receive a literary prize, where she publicly thanks her housekeeper.

The titular door refers to Emerenc’s residence, which has been firmly shut to the outside world for decades until she decides to confide in Magda. This creates a painful dilemma for the novelist which gives the film much of its tension and intrigue.

Her hair swept under a scarf and apparently wearing no make-up, Mirren adroitly conveys the sense of a woman with an indomitable spirit, 'radiating strength like a Valkyrie," as the novel describes her, and who is haunted by her past. One scene in which Emerenc displays incandescent rage is truly frightening.

Gedeck’s character is so warm and giving she verges on the saintly at times, although she is later consumed by guilt, while Tibor is a fairly bland, stolid character apart from one uncharacteristic outburst.

Elemér Ragály’s cinematography bathes the film in a warm, golden light, which is often at odds with the chilly atmosphere between the characters, and the costumes and art direction expertly recreate the era.

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1 hour 38 min
In Cinemas 19 July 2012,