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Review: 'A Master Builder' is an atypically theatrical play-to-film adaptation

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory's take on Ibsen's "The Master Builder," about a bitter, dying architect (Shawn), gets directed by Jonathan Demme.

In "A Master Builder," Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce play a bitter architect and a woman he may have once loved. Credit: Declan Quinn/Abramorama In "A Master Builder," Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce play a bitter architect and a woman he may have once loved.
Credit: Declan Quinn/Abramorama

‘A Master Builder’
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Wallace Shawn, Lisa Joyce
Rating: NR
3 Globes

You’re not supposed to simply do theater on film, it’s said. When you bring a play to cinema, you need to open it up somehow, to recreate it for a different medium. It shouldn’t simply be people bopping about a stage, this time with cameras. On the other hand: why shouldn’t it be just that? Watching a stage from a far-away seat is an awful way to view the delicacies and nuances of finely-tuned performances.

If it does nothing else, Jonathan Demme’s film of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” — given an “A” and reworked for a vague modern age by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory — gets us close to performers and the characters they portray. Shawn himself plays Halvard Solness, a grouchy, tyrannical architect seen on what appears to be his death bed. After grumbling with his harried wife (Julie Haggerty) and a rival (Gregory), he seems to disappear into his head. Now able-bodied and full of life (or at least bile), he entertains a visit from a younger woman (Lisa Joyce) who claims they once had a fling. Through their discussions, he seems to be arguing with himself over his own mis-spent life.

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Julie Haggerty gets to play serious for a change in the Ibsen adaptation "A Master Builder." Credit: Declan Quinn/Abramorama Julie Haggerty gets to play serious for a change in the Ibsen adaptation "A Master Builder."
Credit: Declan Quinn/Abramorama

Shawn and Gregory previously brought “Uncle Vanya” to the screen with 1994’s “Vanya on 42nd St.” That took a more radical approach, playing with the idea of actors playing roles. (The film starts with the actors amassing on what will be the stage; when the play’s action begins, you almost don’t realize it.) Demme plays it more straight, running multiple cameras on the performances then cutting around. It’s not a very flavorful approach, but it does give us a wide open space to savor both the performances and the material itself, which is one of Ibsen’s stranger, more confounding works.

They’re great performances too. Joyce gives a breakout performance, turning what could be an artificial character into a flesh-and-blood reality. Shawn too rarely gets the chance to play serious; he’s too often recognized for his giddy comedic supporting roles in “The Princess Bride” and “Clueless.” (Haggerty too has been pigeonholed by her comic turns. The two previously played spouses in Tom Noonan’s also serious “The Wife.”) As in “Vanya,” he’s a commanding player, here playing arrogant and nasty — yet still playful and charming enough to hint at the Shawn everyone already knows so well.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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