How “A Master Builder” Stumbled in Its Journey From Stage to Screen
Jonathan Demme's penultimate film is well-made and features excellent performances, but suffers in scope.
February 26, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coveraghere.

In crafting their 2014 film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Master Builder, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn unwittingly built a structure in the shadow of their previous endeavors. It’s a challenge to talk about Jonathan Demme’s penultimate feature without bringing up Gregory and Shawn’s previous filmmaking collaborations, however. First was 1981’s filmed conversation piece, My Dinner with Andre, followed by 1994’s Chekhovian stage-to-screen adaptation, Vanya on 42nd Street.

Louis Malle directed both, which—perhaps thanks to his overly casual filmmaking style—feel like we’re eavesdropping in places we shouldn’t be. The former is a casual dinner between artists, the latter a private play performance in a dilapidated theater. It’s like we’re witnessing the raw creative nerves of Gregory and Shawn, peeking into their minds and drawing back the curtains of their artistic processes.

Demme’s A Master Builder, on the flip side, is the most cinematic of the Gregory/Shawn film trilogy. It comes off less as an intrusion and more an inversion, taking the process crafted by Gregory and Shawn and filtering it through Demme’s empathetic lens. There will always be a little bit of mastery that comes through, but there is still something lost in translation here.

A Master Builder doesn’t stray too far at all from the original Ibsen play it’s based on: Halvard Solness (Shawn), an elderly architect, is visited by Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a young woman whom Solness had met ten years prior. In this previous meeting, Solness had promised to build Hilde a “dream palace.” Maybe Hilde is here now to ask for this payment. Maybe she’s here to work for Solness as an assistant or maybe to fall madly in love with him. These various motives fold into each other in such a way that no interpretation is really incorrect, all assisted by Joyce’s impeccably passionate portrayal of Hilde.

Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn unwittingly built a structure in the shadow of their previous endeavors.

Ibsen’s A Master Builder has been a long-debated text, a play concerned about the older generation grappling with a younger generation taking their place. It’s almost certainly a play about Ibsen himself facing his own mortality and wondering how best to face the future (or whether to even face it at all). Demme—a filmmaker able to capture every facet of the human spirit on camera—is able to find bits and pieces of these thematic gestures spread throughout the text. However, his framing seems mostly concerned on the mental deterioration of Shawn’s Solness, even going so far as to switching the film’s aspect ratio half-an-hour in to make us question what is in Solness’ mind and what is not.

As always with a Jonathan Demme picture – and a Gregory/Shawn picture, to be fair – the performances are where the true magic of the medium is on full display. Joyce’s performance as Solness’ young potential paramour shines joy and light into a film otherwise populated with sadness and droll behavior. Julie Hagerty, playing Solness’ beleaguered wife, brings a fragile comic energy to her particular melodrama. And even Shawn in the title role is able to bring some melancholy to the proceedings, himself a master artist reckoning with a career careening miles away from the days of having his dinner conversations thrown onto celluloid. They’re all working at the top of their game, and if their performances may read as “theatrical” to some, it unfortunately has to come with the nature of the beast they’re contained in.

It’s curious to think whether Demme’s A Master Builder would have had more success under the Vanya model—that is, a simpler framing device and bare-bones presentation. The cinematic elements Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn use are absolutely noteworthy, but these tools of translating a theatrical piece to the screen can only do so much with a performance and presentation so earnestly and obviously fixed in a theatrical medium.

A Master Builder Trailer: