generally rank The Master Builder not
far below Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House in Henrik Ibsen’s oeuvre, but it
is revived far less frequently. Notable past productions include a 2008
Malayalam film adaptation, a 1992 Broadway revival featuring Lynne Redgrave,
and a 1960 television special starring E.G. Marshall. That did not leave a lot
of iconic baggage for André Gregory to contend with when he staged a modern
translation penned by his frequent collaborator and dinner companion Wallace
Shawn. Their take on Ibsen’s somewhat autobiographical play now hits the big
screen, but the original’s Scandinavian angst remains unmistakable in the Jonathan
Demme helmed A Master Builder (trailer here), which opens this
Wednesday at Film Forum.
Solness is probably dying and his former mentor Knut Brovik most certainly is.
Before his imminent demise, Brovik would like to see Solness make some sort of
affirmation of his son Ragnar’s talents. However, the celebrated architect refuses
to do so, preferring to keep the junior Brovik under his thumb as his draftsman.
Frankly, he is afraid the son might usurp his position, just as he unseated his
father. It also suits Solness to maintain a high degree of control over Ragnar,
considering he has taken the young man’s fiancée Kaya Fosli as his mistress.
relationship to his wife Aline is even more complicated than his dealings with
the Brovik family. It seems he feels profound guilt over a shared tragedy from
their past that will be revealed over time. The catalyst for his subsequent
revelations and soul searching will be the arrival of Hilde Wangel, a
free-spirited young woman, who was quite taken with Solness as a teenager.
Evidently, he made some rather inappropriate advances at the time. Yet, it was
the vision of Solness laying a wreath atop her village’s newly erected church
steeple that really made an impression on her.
will be Builder’s curse to be
inevitably compared to Louis Malle’s classic career coda Vanya on 42nd Street, but that is a ridiculously high
standard to be measured against. It is impossible replicate the evocative vibe
of the gutted New Amsterdam Theatre in which it was mounted and Joshua Redman’s
smoky harbop musical interludes are also sorely missed. Instead, Demme doubles
down on intimacy, focusing on his actors and their human frailties.
an acting showcase, Builder is still considerable,
particularly Shawn, who gives full voice to Solness’s guilt and arrogance. He
is a complex but manipulative character, who must be one of the great
late-career challenges a stage actor can tackle. While it is a smaller role, Gregory
cuts an acutely tragic figure as the physically and emotionally ailing Brovik.
It is also good to see Broadway and Vanya
veteran Larry Pine return as Dr. Elert Herdal. While it is smaller part, he
has a very nice scene drawing out Solness’s initial first act confession.
Aline Solness’s preoccupation with obligation is difficult to re-contextualize
in a modern production, Julie Hagerty still manages to flesh out a
multidimensional portrayal. However, Lisa Joyce never successful integrates
Wanger’s contradictory aspects. As a result, she largely remains a
destabilizing cycher, periodically stirring matters up, apparently because that
is what she does.
is a serious and sensitive interpretation of
Ibsen, but it does not have the timeless élan of Malle’s Vanya. At times, it is almost too respectful, allowing the string
ensemble soundtrack to underscore the pathos of it all rather than injecting a
little energy. Recommended for those who appreciate highly literate stage
drama, A Master Builder opens this
Wednesday (7/23) at New York’s Film Forum.
Labels: Andre Gregory, Henrik Ibsen, Jonathan Demme, Wallace Shawn