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For Your Consideration: 'A Master Builder'

Wallace Shawn (Master Builder Solness) and Lisa Joyce (Hilde) in A Master Builder

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A Master Builder, directed by Jonathan Demme, W. Shawn
Jonathan Demme seems to be the new Louis Malle, in the sense that he has directed the latest collaboration of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory. The costars of My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street, both directed by Malle, are reunited in A Master Builder, Demme's new film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play Bygmester Solness (Master Builder Solness). The screenplay credit goes to Shawn, although the film is based on a stage production of the play created by Gregory, and the changes to the structure of the play are significant. Demme, who has not made a good feature movie since Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia in the 1990s, has directed an earnest and sometimes surprising version of this play, with a twist that transforms the plot from one about an old man ruined by a seductive woman to one about an old man who is saved by one (watch out for spoilers after the jump).

Shawn plays Halvard Solness, a highly regarded architect whose life is coming apart, as a mostly vile and petty egotist, blinded to anyone's concerns but his own. Everything in his life has gone wrong, ever since a fire burned down his wife's family home, in a way killing their three-week-old twin sons. At the same time, the tragedy boosted his career, for which Solness feels he is being punished: "I am being ground down into the dirt," he says at one point, "overpowered by guilt." He is cruel to his ailing colleague, Brovik (played with painful sincerity by Gregory), and his son who aspires to be an architect, keeping the son and his fiancée, with whom he is carrying on a not-so-secret affair, under his thumb. Into this situation comes a young woman, Hilde, who is a stand-in for the older Ibsen's infatuations with young women late in his life. She confronts Solness with his past, when he designed a building in her village and, at a celebration for the opening, treated her, then only a young girl, in a way that we might now describe as molestation.

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Lisa Joyce has a truly strange turn as Hilde, whose tendency to laugh inappropriately or otherwise act oddly seems to mark her as an otherworldly presence. In Ibsen's play, she flatters the master builder's pride and goads him into climbing up the tall spire of his new building project -- the tower being the traditional symbol of human pride -- from which he falls to his death. The film version opens with Holness already on his death bed, hooked up to many machines, and during a conversation with his friend Dr. Herdal, in an excellent performance by Larry Pine (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), he appears to suffer a fatal crisis, just before Hilde arrives. Here Hilde seems like a comforting angel: "Hilde, it's so good that you came to me," Solness says at one point. "I need someone to talk to." In the end, she guides him and those around him to forgiveness and reconciliation, in the last fleeting moments of his life, perhaps only metaphorically. Julie Hagerty (Airplane) is devastating as Halvard's cold and embittered wife, Aline ("Don't you understand that you can work and you can build for your entire life, and you will never, ever be able to give me that home that feels right to me"), and the rest of the cast is filled out capably, but this slow and methodical film may not have much appeal to broader audiences.

This film opens today, exclusively at the E Street Cinema.


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