Set in Budapest 1913, a year before The Great War, the film follows Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) as she tries to get employment at an upmarket hat store that was previously owned by her parent until they died (the shop still bears her family name). Her arrival to Budapest has sparked murmurings and mutterings among the people of Budapest as her brother is wanted for murder. Irisz was previously unaware she even had a brother, having been adopted at the age of two following her parent’s death, and she seeks to find him but it proves to be difficult.
Director Laszlo Nemes became a man to watch with his harrowing and gruelling holocaust drama, Son of Saul, which somehow managed to bring something new to a horrendous period of history that has been frequently depicted in fiction. Using close ups, a blurry background and tracking shots from behind the protagonist’s head, Son of Saul effectively gave the impression that the holocaust had an overwhelmingly dehumanising and disorientating effect. The blurry background and fixed camera gave the idea that the central character had been turned into an empty shell because of the horror around him.
It’s a filming technique employed once by again by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (who worked on both films) and whilst it was ideal for Son of Saul it is less ideal here. During the Q and A, Nemes said you are never meant to get into the head of the female lead. Whilst it can be refreshing to have a central character who is an enigma, it does have the effect that it distances you so much from the lead character that you don’t feel invested in them. This is, sadly, the case here and it’s almost ironic that, with all the close ups of Irinz’s face and neck, we never get inside her head.
What this means is that there is very little emotional investment in an overlong and overwrought story. It makes the film a slog to sit through, especially considering its very heavy and demanding viewing as the film’s plot structure is hard to follow. This is mostly because of its ambiguous nature and random characters who never seem to allude to what they’re saying. Another issue with the story is it feels repetitive. It feels as though we spend 50% of the film watching Irinz not doing as she’s told by wondering off to places she shouldn’t (anyone around her has the patience of a saint).
There’s limited dialogue (which is mostly firm demands for Irinz to leave Budapest for some reason) as the film uses visuals to tell the story. This is where the film is at its most technically impressive as long takes are flawlessly executed with the camera following Irinz through the streets of Budapest whilst the chaotic action takes place around her. The visuals are intended to allude to the dawning of the First World War, perhaps the hat store represents the crumbling of an old empire, and the final scenes symbolise how the First World War completely changed the 18th and 19th century viewpoints of Empire.
In my view, the First World War was the start of the decline of the British Empire as well as many other European/Euroasia empires including Belgium, France, and Ottoman Empire (the traditional European powerhouses of the 19th century). However, Nemes was quoted as saying “This suicide [First World War] remains a mystery until this very day” when there’s nothing confusing about the causes of the First World War as the causes are linked to the desire for vast empires, creating a powder keg that needed the slightest spark to set it alight.
It’s not quite a powerful and effective as his previous effort, then again it was unlikely to be. Still, even if the film isn’t a complete success, it was a noble effort.