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'The Master Builder' is powerful but somewhat problematic

Actor Wallace Shawn's adaptation of the Ibsen play loses some of its weight because of its choice to flash back in time, but actress Lisa Joyce is startlingly good in the film.

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    Architect Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) is beguiled by Hilde (Lisa Joyce) in ‘A Master Builder.’
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The movie of Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play “The Master Builder” freely adapted by one of its costars, Wallace Shawn, and directed by Jonathan Demme originated as a stage production by Shawn’s longtime collaborator, André Gregory. (The two appeared together in 1981’s “My Dinner With André,” directed by Louis Malle.) Gregory is not one to rush things: The production was developed over a 14-year period. The movie, by contrast, took one week to film.

If all this sounds familiar, it may be because Shawn and Gregory previously pulled off a similar enterprise, 1994’s “Vanya on 42nd Street,” directed by Malle and also rehearsed for years on stage. That film, a modern, street-clothes rendition of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” adapted by David Mamet, is one of the glories of filmed theater.

“A Master Builder” does not rise to that level – few films do – but it’s a powerful experience just the same. (It’s also one of very few film adaptations of an Ibsen play that I could recommend, another being Satyajit Ray’s 1989 “An Enemy of the People.”) 

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The title character, Halvard Solness, is played by Shawn, and the casting is the source of both the film’s strength and weakness. As he is typically portrayed, Halvard is a dashing, autocratic architect who caters to the well-to-do in a small Norwegian town. He has a long-suffering wife, Aline (well portrayed in the movie by Julie Hagerty), still racked by the loss, years earlier, of her two little boys as a consequence of a house fire that Halvard may unwittingly have abetted. He also has an adoring secretary, Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell) and an underling Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), whose advancement he has assiduously blocked. Ragnar’s dying father, Knut (Gregory, in a small performance of great poignancy), was similarly stymied years before by Halvard, and the injustice poisons the air. 

Shawn is not, to put it mildly, an actor capable of romantic dash and brio. He is not so much commanding as sniveling; the ardor he elicits, even allowing for the aphrodisiac of power, has to be accepted on faith. And yet, Shawn’s whining wheedliness has its powerful passive-aggressive torque, and after a while, his presence for me became more a force of nature than a novelty. 

Shawn’s adaption of Ibsen is somewhat problematic. Instead of moving in linear fashion to the play’s literal and metaphorical climax when Halvard self-destructs climbing atop the spire of his newly built home, Shawn juggles the time scheme as he flashes back from Halvard lying in a hospital bed in his current home. The play’s upward thrust is dismantled, and with it, the full weight of Ibsen’s death-haunted trajectory. It also gives rise to some wobbly is-it-real-or-fantasy conjectures that are more fuzzy than revelatory. But you sit up straight when, a third of the way in, an unannounced guest arrives. Hilde (Lisa Joyce) is a 22-year-old beauty who claims that, 10 years earlier, Halvard, after ascending the tower of one of his creations in her hometown, met with her family and, in private, kissed her amorously and promised her he would one day make her his princess. Now, appearing as a kind of angelic wraith, Hilde has shown up to collect.

Joyce is startlingly good. At first Hilde might appear to be a species of stalker, but it’s more complicated than that. Her propulsive laugh has its harrowing edge of hysteria. She is both venomous and rapt – it’s clear she still holds out her girlish hope that Halvard will build her a castle. She brings out Halvard’s desperation, his fear that he is being overtaken by younger rivals, that he owes his good fortune to the sacrifice of all that makes life worth living, and that retribution is inevitable.

Halvard’s fears may represent Ibsen’s own mea culpa: his acknowledgment of the price to pay for being an artist. Or maybe this is just gloomy Scandinavian business as usual. Whatever the case, the film resounds with hyperbolic passion. Hot bubbling currents flow through this film’s constricted veins. Grade: A- (This film is not rated.)

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