The great Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s tempestuous tale of an expert architect’s slow unraveling swaps continents and languages—from Norway to New York—in Jonathan Demme’s honorable if chilly screen adaptation. The film adheres closely to a well-reviewed theater production cocreated by and starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both of whom get to riff on their prickly My Dinner with Andre rapport.
In a tense opening scene (filmed with a restless handheld camera that keeps you perpetually on edge), dying draftsman Halvard (Shawn) is visited by his sickly rival Knut (Gregory). The two men argue over professional and personal grudges, their fiery discourse building to a potent point of irresolution. Not long after, Halvard slips into a reverie (cleverly, the aspect ratio widens and the bleak color palette becomes lush and warm) in which he rises from his deathbed and does battle with his nerve-jangled wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), as well as a mysterious visitor, Hilde (Lisa Joyce), who insists they’ve met ten years before.
Ibsen is much more than plot points, of course, and to his credit, Demme lets the multilayered text do the talking. 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 title character may be spinning out of control, but there’s an overall lifelessness to A Master Builder, as if Demme were embalming the Shawn-Gregory stage show rather than making it live onscreen.
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