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Movie Review

Reconstructing ‘A Master Builder’

Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in a scene from Jonathan Demme’s “A Master Builder.”
Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in a scene from Jonathan Demme’s “A Master Builder.”(Declan Quinn/ The Ibsen Project LLC)

Before Ayn Rand had conceived of her heroic Objectivist architect Howard Roark, Henrik Ibsen had created his Nietzschean Master Builder, Halvard Solness, a creator of towers, whose hubris brings his downfall. A composite of Mephistopheles, Lucifer, Scrooge, and a dirty old man, Solness has not appealed to filmmakers as much as Henrik Ibsen’s heroines Hedda Gabler or Nora, from “A Doll’s House.” Jonathan’s Demme’s adaptation might be the first made specifically for the big screen.

Drawn from Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s stage production, it offers a “Master Builder” not so much for our time as for a particular time of life. Though the film makes little effort to open up the play, letting it all unfold, as in the original, within Solness’s house — if not his mind — Demme’s version intensifies the drama into something oneiric.

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As in “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994), with a screenplay by Gregory and directed by Louis Malle (to whom this film is dedicated), twists are added to the old classic. While Ibsen describes Solness as “a middle-aged man, strong and forceful,” here he is played by bald, elfin Shawn, who’s 70 (the same age as Ibsen when he had an affair with a teenager, an inspiration for the play). Shawn is perhaps best known to audiences as the trollish Grand Nagus Zek of the Ferengi Alliance on the TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” As the film begins he lies on a gurney attached to vital-signs monitors. It looks like the master builder is breaking down.

There he remains for much of the first act, prone but still demonstrating his vanity and his power over others. He refuses to endorse his apprentice, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), son of the moribund Knut Brovik (André Gregory), the man he brought low to raise himself to the heights. He manipulates Ragnar’s fiancée, Kaya (Emily Cass McDonnell), who is besotted by his power and position, into keeping the ambitious Ragnar at bay. His shrunken wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), bears his infidelity and insensitivity with a passive aggressiveness that Solness ignores.

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He thinks he has occult powers and supernatural helpers and can achieve whatever he wants just by wishing for it. Nonetheless, he is filled with angst. Will his luck run out? Will he have to pay for his success? Mostly he fears being usurped by young talents like Ragnar, but he also feels guilt about something else, deeply repressed. As he confesses his anxieties to his physician, Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine), who should arrive but hoydenish Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), beaming and dressed in little hiking shorts and knee socks, a visitor from the past?

Moments earlier his EKG alarm was beeping, but now he leaps from the gurney, limber, natty, and grinning in a black sweatsuit. He greets the young woman. It seems he had met her years before when she was a child at the opening ceremony for a church he had just erected.

At this point Declan Quinn’s cinematography changes from hand-held verité to a more meditative style, luminous and suggestive of immanent revelation. The performances ratchet up to giddy near-hysteria, as Hilde toys with Solness’s randiness and repressed memory. Her agenda is unclear, but not Solness’s growing desperation and dread. Unlike the Objectivist architect that would supplant him in the political imagination in the next century, Solness still has a conscience. Demme, Shawn, and Gregory’s adaptation of “A Master Builder,” a kind of Nordic “Christmas Carol” or a profound version of the novel and film “If I Stay,” serves as a reminder that even the most powerful should beware of heights.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.