Even people who detest filmed theater (otherwise known as “right-thinking people”) acknowledge that 1994’s Vanya On 42nd Street is a magnificent exception to the rule. So there was reason to hope that A Master Builder, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 masterpiece, might serve as an encore, since it evolved from a similar long-term collaboration between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Granted, Louis Malle, who’d directed the pair in My Dinner With Andre as well as Vanya, died in 1995, but they’d secured an able replacement in Jonathan Demme, a filmmaker capable of conjuring cinema from something as stagebound as Spalding Gray’s monologue Swimming To Cambodia. Could they possibly pull it off again?
Not quite, alas. This time around, the film’s primary asset is the play itself, which has been faithfully “translated”—at least according to the credits—by Shawn. (Since he reportedly doesn’t know a word of Norwegian, it would be more accurate to say that he’s revised someone else’s translation.) Shawn also plays the title character, Halvard Solness, an egocentric architect who’s spent his life undermining the abilities of his talented assistant, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), to ensure that there’s no competition in town. To that end, he’s been feigning romantic interest in Ragnar’s fiancée (Emily Cass McDonnell) so that she’ll keep working for him as a bookkeeper, thereby preventing Ragnar from striking out on his own. This doesn’t thrill Solness’ wife (Julie Hagerty), and she’s even less happy about the sudden appearance of a vivacious 22-year-old woman named Hilde (Lisa Joyce), who pulls Solness aside and claims that he seduced her when she was 12, promising that he’d return in 10 years and make her his princess. Now Hilde wants him to make good, or at least to impress her again by climbing the tall spire atop the new house he’s building.
The Master Builder (as it’s usually called in English; why the article was changed from definite to indefinite is unclear) traffics heavily in symbolism, which is one reason why it hasn’t been adapted for film and TV nearly as frequently as has Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Still, the toxicity of May-December romances, especially between older men and younger women, has rarely been as acutely dissected as it is in the lengthy exchanges between Solness and Hilde. Shawn wasn’t the ideal Vanya, and he doesn’t much resemble Ibsen’s conception of Solness, either, but he does manage to convey the susceptibility to flattery that runs roughshod over basic morality. And he has a worthy foil in Joyce, who starts off mimicking Julianne Moore’s astonishing performance in Vanya, with its gales of weirdly inappropriate laughter, but eventually cultivates her own strain of emotional whiplash. Hagerty and Larry Pine (who was also in Vanya) do fine work in support, and the film will serve as a solid introduction to the play for those unfamiliar with it.
That’s all it is, though. For one thing, somebody—most likely Gregory, who directed the stage version—decided to place Solness in a hospital bed at the outset, suggesting that he’s gravely ill; the entire play, from the point early on at which Hilde enters, is expressly depicted as Solness’ dying dream, which makes a hash of the deliberate ambiguity Ibsen carefully creates. For another, 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 like Vanya 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.