• Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce. Photo courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center.

A Master Builder (2014)

A claustrophobic stew of lust, ambition, ego and envy

 Director: Jonathan Demme

Screenwriter: Translated and adapted for stage and screen by Wallace Shawn

Starring: Wallace Shawn, Lisa Joyce, Andre Gregory, Julie Hagerty, Jeff Biehl, Larry Pine and Emily McDonnell

Run Time: 127 minutes


Sometimes it’s best to ignore the source of an adaptation and let the new work stand on its own. That works well with this excellent new adaptation of the 1893 Henrik Ibsen play “The Master Builder,” converted to film in modern dress as “A Master Builder” by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The film has an outstanding cast of seven and immerses us in a story of lust, ambition, ego and envy.

The film very closely follows Ibsen’s original story—with one important exception. We meet master builder Halvard Solness as an aging and sick man, tended by nurses and resting in a hospital bed in his office. (Ibsen describes him in the original as “a man no longer young, but healthy and vigorous.” This illness reframes the story of the architect with the monstrous ego and ambition and provides a dreamlike and ambiguous ending.

Director Jonathan Demme has created a film that to my mind is more claustrophic than a one-setting play. Demme uses extreme closeups of his garrulous characters as well as a small number of tight physical spaces.

Shawn plays Solness, an architect who delights in suppressing the ambitions of those around him. In years past, he appropriated the architectural practice of Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory), who is now near death. He and his son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) work for Solness, who refuses to let Ragnar perform anything more than menial duties. Solness also is having an affair with Ragnar’s fiancé, Kaya (Emily McDonnell), who works as his bookkeeper. Solness’ wife, Aline (an emotionally stirring performance by Julie Hagerty), mourns her past, professes her obligations to duty, and puts up with Solness’ infidelities.

Into this already stressful domestic milieu strides Hilde (Lisa Joyce), a 22-year-old woman out of Solness’ past. She has come to him so that he can make good on his promise to her of 10 years ago to “make her a princess and buy her a kingdom.” He remembers that they met in her hometown during the completion ceremonies for one of his buildings. Their dialogue carries strong implications of pedophilia. Hilde is a combination of seductive temptress, avenging angel and voice of reason. Joyce gives a stunning performance, switching moods with equanimity and an effervescent, almost maniacal, laugh.

Shawn’s performance as the despotic Solness is powerful, despite his round face, short, unsvelte body and velour tracksuit. He convinces us that he’s a man of charisma and sex appeal. Of course, power is also an aphrodisiac, as Henry Kissinger famously said.

The film is full of metaphors, signified by the fact that its original title was “Fear of Falling:” Solness’ acrophobia, high towers, castles in the sky and the builder’s tradition of hanging a wreath on the topmost point of a new building. (The tradition continues today in many countries, where even glass and metal skyscrapers are “topped out” with a signed beam, a tree or a flag.)

Shawn translated Ibsen’s play and wrote the screenplay and script for the earlier stage production, on which Shawn and Gregory collaborated. The play was rehearsed and performed over a 14-year period before Demme came on as director to produce the film version. The team of Declan Quinn as director of photography and Tim Squyres as editor is responsible for the look of the film, its claustrophobic interiors and dreamlike exteriors.

A Master Builder is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago through August 14 and at two Los Angeles-area theaters through August 21.

This article was previously posted on gapersblock.com/ac/.

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Nancy is editor and publisher of Third Coast Review a Chicago arts and culture website, where she writes on theater, film, art and lit. She is a 2014 fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can find her personal writings on pop culture of all types at nancybishopsjournal.com. Nancy, recently retired after 30+ years in corporate marketing and PR, holds a B.J. from the University of Missouri and an M.A. in communications and design from Northern Illinois University. Follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. Author website: http://thirdcoastreview.com/