Demme’s “A Master Builder”—based on the play by Henrik Ibsen—finds an aging Wallace Shawn playing Halvard Solness, a master architect nearing the end of his life. He lives in a big house—where all of the film’s action takes place-- that’s frequented by acquaintances, doctors and employees and yet, everything feels closed in and uninhabited. He has a wife Aline (Julie Hagerty) but there’s no spark between them, nothing resembling a loving marriage. She’s just someone who happens to live in the same house. Halvard is selfish and scathing, condescending and distant. At one point in his life he screwed over his friend Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory) to get ahead in his career. He’s afraid of being eclipsed by young, potential competition in the form of Ragnor Brovik (Jeff Biehl) so he keeps him at a lowly position and won’t let him take on any jobs by himself.
Halvard is an incredibly successful architect and yet at this point in his life it appears he doesn’t have much to show for it. He’s spent his whole life building houses and buildings for others but he’s neglected building a home for himself and his wife. The “house” he lives in is just that, a house and not a home. There are three bedrooms made up for children but they remain vacant. The fact that the house also doubles as his office means that, in Halvard’s life, the two opposing structures—family life and work life—have blended into one another. Halvard’s architectural career has become his entire existence. And now, he has nothing to do but pace around his cold empty shelter waiting for death. He’s practically dead already.
The only way he feels alive is when he’s surrounded by younger women; one of them, Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), he hired just so he could be around her and have sexual companionship. The other, Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a frisky, mysterious girl had an encounter with Halvard years ago when she was only twelve and has never gotten over it. She seems to be in awe of Halvard--the “Master Builder” as she calls him-- and angry at him at the same time. She’s clearly got a screw loose but just about all of the main characters go through bouts of insanity as the story moans on. You would too if you had to be cooped up in this unwelcoming, claustrophobic house for two hours. In fact I got squirmy and anxious just watching them.
Halvard Solness is certainly one of the more dark, complex and introverted characters Shawn—a playwright himself and the adaptor of this updated version of Ibsen’s play—has ever played. He’s normally known for doing more cartoonish and comic supporting roles. And yet, he’s able to animate the character in ways only he can do it. A lot of it comes from his unique, mischievous, almost troll like face; squinty eyes as if lemon juice has been squirted into them and a massive grin plastered onto his face. It’s a fantastic performance ranging from loopy and animated to snarling and fierce. He’ll deliver lines with such glee and others with such hostility.
Hagerty—another actor known mainly for comedies-- gives a sincere performance as a frazzled, long suffering wife who’s never gotten over the death of their infant children and the burning down of her parents’ house. Unfortunately the rest of the supporting cast, for the most part, is either flat or straight up bad. Joyce’s performance is a bit too hysterical and over-the-top, which is too bad because she figures so prominently into the story. I found myself cringing and getting worn out by her, leading me to pause my screener every now and again. Meanwhile McDonnell turns in a flimsy awkward performance and Biehl is just dead-eyed and unresponsive. “A Master Builder” also marks the reunion between Shawn and longtime friend and collaborator Andre Gregory—the two wrote and stared in the excellent “My Dinner with Andre”—and while the two share a touching scene at the beginning I wish Gregory were in it more. The character of Knut Brovik remains undeveloped.
Overall, “A Master Builder” is a peculiar movie; Demme shoots and stages it semi documentary style but the picture also has an eerie mystical feel to it. Sometimes it seems like all of the action is happening in some sort of purgatory or afterlife and the ambiguous ending suggests that. The movie walks the line between realism and theatricality, which doesn’t always work. Certain scenes feel overdone and ridiculous and particular theatrical touches—Hilde calling Halvard Master Builder—feel unnecessary.
In the end it’s an interesting movie but it’s also very gloomy and oppressive. I’m not sure I’ll be revisiting it anytime soon.