If the creative minds behind A Master Builder want you to take one thing away from their film, it’s the title; the script manages to smuggle it into dialogue more frequently than character names, and there’s a whole lot of dialogue. You will absolutely never at any point forget that this is a story about a master builder, a man utterly devoted to the craft of architecture. After a point, the constant name-dropping makes the production feel like an echo chamber.
But when the worst crime a film commits is over repetition of a phrase, then that film is in a pretty good place. Such is the case with this collaboration between director Jonathan Demme and the great Wallace Shawn; Demme serves as the project’s helmsman, while Shawn can claim credit for both designing the film’s blueprint and portraying the lead part. His role here as scribe finds its basis in 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name, which Shawn has translated anew. That probably only has special significance for chronic theatergoers, but Shawn’s passion for the material shows through even when the film is at its most tautological. This is a movie crafted with care from top to bottom.
It’s also prickly, bitter and surprisingly unsettling. Shawn plays Halvard Solness, the eponymous genius architect and veteran rascal; we meet him lying in bed, accepting the ministrations of home hospice care as a revolving door of supporting players each in turn come to fuss over him. These initial conversations reveal the breadth of Halvard’s infamy within the film’s first half hour. It turns out that he’s responsible for ruining the career of his mentor, Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory, briefly appearing on screen with Shawn once more after 1981’s My Dinner With Andre), and is currently keeping Knut’s son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), in professional limbo while dallying with the younger man’s fiancee, Kaya (Emily Cass McDonnell). All the while, Halvard’s long-suffering wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), watches her narcissistic tyrant of a husband from the sidelines.
Then a newcomer named Hilde (Lisa Joyce) enters their midst, and suddenly the game changes. Hilde insists that she had a decidedly inappropriate encounter with Halvard ten years prior, when she was just a girl, an accusation which Halvard roundly denies. The mere suggestion immediately shifts A Master Builder’s tone and angles it towards discomfiting territory; we’ve known Halvard is a bastard from the start, but as soon as the subject of Hilde’s childhood innocence is broached, we see him in an even less flattering light. The film becomes a study of obligation, of guilt, of greed, and above all else of Halvard’s insecurities and primal drives.
Demme is only nominally in charge throughout the affair. As with his last film, 2008’s Rachel Getting Married—has it really been six years since Demme made a movie?—he directs with a subdued hand, preferring to keep himself out of the picture and let his actors run the show. It’s a wise choice: while Shawn’s effort behind the camera is admirable, it’s his commanding turn in front that really pays off. Shawn all but disappears into Halvard’s skin. The man is slippery, megalomaniacal, selfish and manipulative, but Shawn shows us the gears turning in his head. That doesn’t make us like Halvard any better, but it does demystify his self-professed greatness and allow us to understand him. No small feat, considering his decided inhumanity. You might even be tempted to feel bad for the guy, but only just. This isn’t Hard Candy.
In contrast to the rapacious Halvard, Shawn happily shares the screen with his able supporting cast; Joyce and Hagerty are the clear standouts, though admittedly they have the benefit of being in the frame with him more than his fellow male performers. Joyce flirts and charms, but there’s danger in her lighthearted air, like she’s waiting to spring a trap on Halvard. Hagerty, meanwhile, conveys volumes of meaning just by clenching her jaw or through the mix of outrage and anguish in her eyes. Halvard tries to exploit and deceive them both, but they’re not having any of it. They make a formidable opposition to his egotism.
A Master Builder isn’t a perfect movie—at times, it’s too ponderous for its own good. But the occasional shortcomings are more than made up for by the caliber of performance he gets out of his troupe, and by the personal touch lent by Shawn’s enthusiasm for Ibsen’s work.
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Wallace Shawn, Henrik Ibsen
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Lisa Joyce, Julie Hagerty, Andre Gregory
Release Date: Sept. 12, 2014