A Master Builder Screen 9 articles

A Master Builder


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  • Every heated interaction, especially the S&M-tinged clashes between Halvard and Hilde, is given room to breathe, allowing the story’s themes of disappointment and guilt to resonate with maximal effect. Yet the movie itself lacks the feverishness that would help it transcend a certain filmed-theater stagnancy.

  • The actors—particularly the three leads (Shawn, Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce as Hilda Wangel, the young woman) emote in an emphatic, exaggerated style, as if the script were written in big block letters. Heavy-handed symbolism, like the towers Halvard loves to build and the three empty bedrooms he and his wife maintain for the children they never had, make things feel all the more clunkily expository.

  • Demme barely even makes an effort, shooting mostly in bland close-ups with the occasional zoom for completely random emphasis. Nor does A Master Builder have any meta-element—it’s likeVanya On 42nd Street without 42nd Street. That movie was so special because, improbably, it was very much a movie. This one is merely filmed theater. Right-thinking people are hereby duly warned.

  • Andre Gregory rehearsed his stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s play for over than a decade. You’d think that would have been long enough to come up with some blocking. But while the actors seldom do anything more strenuous than lean forward, the camerawork for this film version (directed by Jonathan Demme) bounces like a beach ball.

  • The actors, and Demme's rapport with them, are the reasons to see the film. The diminutive, hyper-intellectual, and raspy-voiced Shawn is generally not someone's idea of a romantic lothario, but that disconnect deepens the ironies of the character. The actor physicalizes Halvard's embitterment, understanding that his sexuality is essentially an embodiment of possessive will, which is memorably vocalized in bold, tormented speeches concerned with the "forces of the universe."

  • Demme, following in the footsteps of the late Louis Malle... takes a spare, direct approach to the material. His economy pays off in quiet eloquence. And Shawn, with his trademark two-tooth smile, is marvelous: One minute, his Solness is a cheerful gnome, happily toting up his life's achievements as if they were fat gold coins. The next, he's a sour gremlin, unrepentant for all the damage he's caused. He's mercurial to the max, a Solness who's treacherous but not soulless.

  • It has a bright, chamber-drama appearance that comes off a bit Merchant-Ivory-ish, which understates the strangeness of the material. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—the hallucinatory quality of a dying architect’s last grasping stabs at life sneak up on the audience... A Master Builder is deeply fascinating without making that ultimate leap of poetic imagination that could make its ending transcendent instead of merely preordained.

  • It took me a while to adjust to the heightened tone, but this is a terrific performance film, and brilliantly cast. Crackling with neurotic electricity, Julie Hagerty’s Aline suggests the emaciated intensity of a medieval martyr and the bitter monomania of a character who now channels all her desire into a fixation with “obligation”; and she and Joyce make astute complementary casting, their huge eyes uncannily suggesting mother and daughter, or versions of the same woman.

  • Jonathan Demme’s movie A Master Builder (2014) galvanizes Henrik Ibsen’s heavily symbolic drama The Master Builder—a wonderful play to read, a difficult one to stage—into a vivid, nightmarish dream. Hollywood adapters used to concentrate on “opening up” celebrated plays by scattering the action and taking it outdoors. Demme’s A Master Builder opens up The Master Builder by burrowing down into the psyche of its artisan antihero and turning his home into a dreamscape.

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