A Master Builder Jonathan Demme

A Master Builder Jonathan Demme
Photo by Bob Vergara
After Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory's triumphant collaborations on My Dinner with Andre and Vanya On 42nd Street, any reunion of the duo is reason enough to take notice. The former had the audacity back in 1981 to simply present a flowing conversation between friends at a restaurant while the latter then blurred the line between theatre and film in 1994.

Dedicating their efforts to the director of those two films, the great Louis Malle, the two actors come together again here for Shawn's adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play in Jonathan Demme's A Master Builder. A strange and beguiling film that makes little effort to disguise its stage origins, it's a grand showcase for actors who clearly relish sinking their teeth into complex roles and gnashing on some scenery.

If the story was a bit of a tough nut to crack when it was originally written and mounted, it's an even more difficult one to penetrate now. Master architect Halvard (Shawn) is a pompous and well-regarded man who refuses to allow his talented protégé Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) a chance to make a name for himself in the business. He's keeping him under his thumb while also romancing Ragnar's wife Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell) in a bit of expert manipulation.

When a young, flirtatious woman named Hilda (Lisa Joyce) shows up one day, claiming to have met Halvard ten years ago when he made advances on her and promises that he didn't keep, she sets her sights on playing with his emotions and impulses. Halvard doesn't precisely remember the particulars of what happened a decade earlier but is so enamoured by Hilda that he soon finds himself offering her a job, much to the chagrin of Halvard's harried wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty).

With its long scenes and wooden dialogue (perhaps because it had to be translated from Ibsen's native Norwegian tongue), the actors try their damnedest to bring it all to life while Demme and his cinematographer Declan Quinn film in a jittery hand-held that strives for the same kind of immediacy the style brought to Rachel Getting Married. The nebbish Shawn is almost certainly miscast as the object of desire for the two young women, though he does an admirable job of portraying the inner turmoil turning within Halvard.

The ladies have the showier of the roles, as Hagerty seethes freely with indignation while Joyce prances and entices with wide-eyed infatuation, but both seem too willing to indulge in histrionics at times. Gregory, as the father of Ragnar and the onetime mentor of Halvard, shares but a precious few scenes with Shawn. Given the memory of their prior work together and Ibsen's ultimately confusing intentions with this supposedly semi-autobiographical play from a period late in his career, we are left wishing the two could have at least been on screen together a little more.

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