A Master Builder

Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in A Master Builder

Henrik Ibsen's 1892 play The Master Builder bewildered and angered audiences when it first premiered. Many critics claimed that it was a tale of mad characters written by an author who seemed to have gone mad himself. They argued about whether it was all meant to be symbolic, they argued about what its characters represented and they argued about whether it was any good. The play's reputation has grown over time, though people still argue about how it should be interpreted.

It certainly took stage director Andre Gregory and playwright Wallace Shawn long enough to figure out what to do with it. Gregory and Shawn rehearsed their update of Ibsen's play for a whopping fourteen years... and somewhere around the thirteenth year, they decided to make a serious dramatic change to the play's structure. After the play was completed and had been shown to audiences, the duo began work on A Master Builder, a film adaptation of the new stage production directed by Jonathan Demme.

Unlike the original version of the play, A Master Builder begins with its main character – the esteemed architect Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride) – on his deathbed, and most of what follows unfolds within his mind. He is a powerful, domineering figure who has treated almost everyone in his life poorly. He has thwarted the career advancement of his apprentice Ragnar (Jeff Biehl, Squad 85) out of fear that his talented protege will overtake him. He hires Ragnar's fiancee Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell, Before It Had a Name) as his bookkeeper, and goes to great lengths to ensure that she cares for him far more than she cares for her future husband. He treats his longsuffering wife (Julie Hagerty, Airplane!) with dismissive cruelty, and demonstrates a startling lack of sympathy for Ragnar's ailing father (Andre Gregory, My Dinner with Andre).

Then, a 22-year-old woman named Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce, The Messenger) arrives. Solness rises from his deathbed and cheerfully greets her, clearly delineating the moment in the film where reality ends and dark fantasy begins. Hilde claims to have met Solness a decade earlier, when she was a mere child and he was putting the finishing touches on a towering steeple built in her hometown. Solness is charmed by her vivid memories of that happy moment, then horrified when Hilde claims that Solness made aggressive sexual advances on her at the time... and that he had promised to come back in a decade and take her to a dream palace where they would live happily ever after.

Intriguingly, Hilde has the exact same face as one of the nurses we see in the film's opening scene. Is this a real person that just so happens to have the face of a woman Solness has seen recently? Is she the angel of death? Is she a manifestation of Solness' conscience? Did Solness actually commit the specific crimes Hilde accuses him of, or do these accusations of grotesque abuse merely serve as a symbol of the way he has treated everyone in his life? The film leaves these questions open to interpretation, but otherwise brings sharp definition to its characters and their respective situations.

Shawn certainly isn't a prototypical Solness. On stage, the part is usually played by a tall, handsome, leading man of sorts – the kind of towering figure who looks down on everyone literally and figuratively. As played by the diminutive Shawn, Solness is more of a grubby troll casting evil psychological spells on the people closest to him. It's an inspired performance, and I love the way Shawn's amiable surface persona gives way to serpentine venom when he's ready to twist the knife. Lisa Joyce is even better as Hilde, playing her as a woman who always seems on the verge of having a laughing fit. Sometimes that laughter seems joyful, sometimes it seems ironic and sometimes it seems threatening, but it's always there, and the effect is uniquely unsettling. We keep waiting for her to unleash her righteous fury on Solness, but the plans she has for him are subtler than that.

Demme (stepping in for the late Louis Malle, who helmed Shawn and Gregory's previous big-screen collaborations) does his best to prevent his film from feeling like “a filmed play,” but he only partially succeeds. The handheld camerawork recalls the loose, naturalistic vibe of his marvelous Rachel Getting Married, but the performances feel distinctly theatrical. The cast of the stage production is the exact same cast featured in the film version, and despite the fact that Demme instructed all of the actors to bring their performances down a few notches (a great stage performance is a very different thing from a great film performance), there are moments when it feels as if the actors are playing to an audience that isn't there. None of the performances are bad, mind you, it's just an aspect of the film that frequently reminds us of its roots. Additionally, Demme's fleeting nature shots do little to really open up the film on a visual level. Still, it's more vibrant than it could have been, and it makes an effort to be a real movie.

While I don't think A Master Builder sticks the landing (the ending ought to have a huge impact, but it feels like the dramatic equivalent of a shrug), the journey to that point is a compelling one. This is a bold and inventive reworking of a bold and inventive reworking of a bold and inventive play, and it's refreshing to see a talented group of actors, stage veterans and filmmakers tackle it with such gusto. Gregory and Shawn first teamed up for the unusual My Dinner with Andre, in which they built an entire film out of a single dinner conversation. Later, they collaborated on Vanya on 42nd Street, a marvelous stage-to-screen adaptation that effectively stripped a great Chekov play down to its most essential elements. This film isn't quite as powerful as their earlier efforts, but it's every bit as ambitious and unique. 

A Master Builder

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Year: 2014