Kris Rothstein's Blog

A Master Builder

Kris Rothstein

Director Jonathan Demme teams up with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory for this Henrik Ibsen play adaptation.

The Master Builder is one of Ibsen's last plays (1892) and many critics have seen it as a apology for his own flaws and the most autobiographical of his many works. Even amongst Ibsen's contemporary supporters (and he had many detractors!), the play was considered strange and difficult to understand.

This film production is beautiful and wonderfully shot. Each scene and shot is sharp and arresting. It remains very theatrical, with few locations and a focus on character, dialogue and expression. Occasionally the acting is perhaps overwrought.

Halvard Solness is the Master Builder, an architect who has willed his own success and wonders if his many lucky breaks were caused by the power of his own mind or some other force. He also accepts that his success necessitated sacrifices, especially by his unhappy wife, Aline. Solness is old enough to worry about being eclipsed by the younger generation, specifically his assistant, Ragnor Brovik. Solness has engaged in some hefty mind games to keep Ragnor down, including seducing his fiancee. Suddenly he is visited by Hilda Wangel, a leggy and vivacious young woman who became obsessed with Solness when he built a church tower in her town ten years earlier. She reminds him of how he kissed her, called her a princess and promised to take her away but it is unclear whether any of this actually happened. Hilda believes in him absolutely although she starts to see his flaws and defects after observing him with Aline and Ragnor. The two are almost manic together, probing each others' psyches, laughing hysterically and imagining a fantastical future.

Apparently Shawn adapted the source material, including the translation from Norwegian, a language he does not speak. The result is not too modernized though it does shift some sections around. The biggest choice Shawn made was to frame the main action of the play as either a sort of fantasy or flashback. I am not quite sure which he is going for and am not certain that this doesn't lessen the strange impact of the play's content.

Ibsen famously tackled complex psychology (which was almost unheard of at the time) including the darkest corners of the mind, as well as difficult social issues. This story is particularly concerned with the cost of progress and personal success as well as the many facets of ambition. It also considers strength, weakness and health, both physical and mental. Much of the play wonders about the mental state of both Solness and Hilda and we are left to draw our own conclusions.

While some might see Shawn as ill-suited to the role of the charismatic and strong-willed Master Builder Solness, I thought he inhabited the role admirably and filled the screen with his will and presence, as is necessary for the character. He worked particularly well with Lisa Joyce as Hilda, and the two make a fierce and watchable combination. This is no My Dinner with Andre but for fans of Wallace Shawn's work this is well worth viewing.



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