A Master Builder

The Jonathan Demme-directed A Master Builder constitutes an ingenious and fluid filmization of AndrÈ Gregory's stage production of Henrik Ibsen's 1892 play Master Builder Solness, translated from the Norwegian by Wallace Shawn. The effort is a cousin of sorts to the late Louis Malle's acclaimed Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), itself a cinematization of Chekhov....read more

Where to Watch

Available to Stream

Reviewed by Nathan Southern
Rating:

The Jonathan Demme-directed A Master Builder constitutes an ingenious and fluid filmization of AndrÈ Gregory's stage production of Henrik Ibsen's 1892 play Master Builder Solness, translated from the Norwegian by Wallace Shawn. The effort is a cousin of sorts to the late Louis Malle's acclaimed Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), itself a cinematization of Chekhov. The two features share a similar pedigree, each one shaped by the stage from a classic by Gregory, photographed on film by ace DP Declan Quinn, production designed by Eugene Lee, and performed with gusto by Gregory, Shawn and a supporting ensemble. The only major distinction here is the presence of Demme, who not only proves himself worthy of stepping into Malle's shoes, but creates his most accomplished work since his mid-'80s career apex.

The basic outlines of the drama will be familiar to followers of the legendary playwright. Shawn stars as Halvard Solness, a brilliant architect lying on his deathbed in a sprawling home. Nearby are his acolyte/protÈgÈ Ragnar Brovik (Jeff Biehl); Ragnar's dying father Knut Brovik (Gregory); Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), a woman engaged to Ragnar and carrying on a clandestine affair with Halvard; Halvard's long-suffering wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty); and an attending physician, Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine). Knut approaches Halvard and asks that he provide a series of recommendations to help advance the career of Ragnar; Halvard refuses, insisting that he will do nothing that may rob himself of his position as the community's premier architect. Later, as Halvard begins to expire, the film travels into his mind for a protracted series of scenes that could either be interpreted as memory or fantasy, in which the builder takes a formal assessment of his tortured past. He is visited by a sensual young woman named Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), who at 12-years-old received romantic and sexual advances from him, as well as inflated promises about the future -- events of which Halvard claims to have no memory. Hilde begins to insinuate herself into the Solness household, and Halvard's flirtatious behavior toward her draws Aline's wrath. In the period that follows, discussions that Hilde conducts with each of the Solnesses gradually unearth scandalous details from the family's past, including the death by immolation of two young sons, and the full extent of Halvard's monstrous egotism. The final passages suggest (but do not explicitly depict) an image of the acrophobic Halvard vainly attempting to climb the spire of one of the churches he has built, to crown the structure with a wreath -- always striving for some elusive Olympian goal but never quite getting there, as death closes its jaws.

As Malle did with Vanya, Demme uses Builder to recontextualize an iconic piece of theater for the screen. With an admirable minimum of cinematographic flourishes, and heavy reliance on expressive close-ups that are used to catch thousands of delicate behavioral nuances, the director somehow strips the familiar play of all of its cliched associations and time-vested iconography, and makes the meaning of the drama more real, more alive for us. As a result, we see rather quickly that the themes are as vital and pertinent now as they were in the 1890s. These include: the value of taking stock of one's life and selfish misdeeds, the hazards of investing oneself in fanciful spiritual beliefs to avoid taking responsibility for one's own actions, the shared longing that many feel for a permanent legacy and increasingly grandiose achievement in vain defiance of human transience. To the credit of the filmmakers and cast, those ideas have arguably never resounded with as much force or potency in an onscreen adaptation of an Ibsen play as they do here.

The dramatic interpretations feel not simply extraordinary, but lived-in; per Gregory's standard m.o., he and his ensemble developed Builder over nearly a decade, and it shows. Best of all is Joyce, a relative newcomer who has done the preponderance of her prior work onstage and on television. She is the emotional nerve center of the drama and holds her own vis-a-vis veterans Shawn and Hagerty -- to such a degree that the performance announces the arrival of a major star.

The more one reflects on this picture, the more one realizes what an admirable and remarkable feat it represents. We live in an era where theatrical releases are increasingly gauged for their commercial value alone, and those who hold the purse strings regard realist human drama of any depth and weight as anathema to the medium. This film eschews those ideas, declaring its feeling that such prioritizations are ghastly. In lieu of a barrage of special effects and gimmickry, we get a cornucopia of some of the most beautifully shaped theatrical performances ever rendered, multidimensional characterizations that practically demand repeat assessment and analysis, two hours of the greatest dialogue ever written for the stage, and a director willing to draw us into his own deliberate pace and hold our attentions rapt. What more could one ask of a motion picture?

Your new favorite show is right here. Trust us.

TV Premiere Dates

Because it's never too early to plan Thursday night... two months from now.

My News

Sign up and add shows to get the latest updates about your favorite shows - Start Now