A Master Builder, with an updated and translated script by Wallace Shawn, focuses on the latter days of skilled architect Halvard Solness. An extremely fortunate man by his own confession, Solness is irritated by his protégé Ragnar, who he is holding back from developing his own projects. Solness neglects his wife and manipulates his assistant Kaia, who Ragnar desires. In all aspects of his life, he is in control – he has power. And then a woman from his past, Hilda, arrives, claiming on a promise Solness delivered to her when she was a child.
The film is adapted from the late 19th century play by Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, and as such there is a jarring lack of naturalism achieved by placing the film in the modern day. Simply by referring to Solness as a master builder (rather than an architect) is enough, but added to by dialogue and performances that feel eerily out of sync with the film’s grounded aesthetic. Shawn’s script is the most to blame for this, managing to lose all of the intriguing symbolism in the play in favour of a simple story about an aging man undone by a young woman. Solness’ search for meaning and allegories for religion lie are buried, if at all existent, beneath superficial explorations of pride and age.
It is easy to write off the text simply as “unfilmable”, as admittedly many similar aged texts could be considered to be. Still, Shawn, in the title role as Solness, utilises the words he has written to great effect – it is hard to imagine anyone but he wrangling the script with such unabashed enthusiasm and subtle arrogance. At his side, Lisa Joyce is wonderfully manipulative as Hilda, becoming a sort of femme fatale or accelerant for Solness’ hamartia, but she fills the role with an immaturity and glee that elevates the middle of the film. But all of this seems somewhat secondary to the driving force of the film, the real star, never seen on screen. And that is director Jonathan Demme.
With Demme’s passing last year, he will long be remembered for being an accomplished documentarian – a pioneer and perhaps a perfecter of the Rock-Doc. But his early career arguably piggy-backed the work of 70’s up and coming auteurs, and even his most famous piece, The Silence of the Lambs, owes a lot to Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Demme turned down the camp and upped the suspense, but he still relied a little too heavily on the performances of two fantastic leads. But if A Master Builder shows anything, it is Demme’s capability as a building block director. There are likenesses to be seen here in all of his previous work, as he borrows the strengths that have served him well before. First, there is the sense of realism and attention to detail that serve a documentary so well. Demme’s trust in talented actors is key to his style, and no one lets him down here. And then there’s his pared back style, his fondness for shooting the scene as if it is utterly naturalistic and yet somehow imbued with a magical cinematic charm.
As proved by his later career work – particularly Rachel Getting Married – Demme knows his subject matter, he understands how to draw meaning out of pause, and he knows how to exact brilliance from all various elements at play in the scene. As a director, Jonathan Demme’s career was filled with dramatic highs and disappointing lows, and from a clinical point of view, A Master Builder should be forever listed in the first column.
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