Aug 6, 2014

A Master Builder

This new collaboration between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (My Dinner With Andre) is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic play. In the absence of Louis Malle, who directed their wonderful Uncle Vanya in 42nd Street,  Jonathan Demme is at the helm. If you are expecting the same lovely modern rendering of a classic play on screen, you may be disappointed.
For starters, Jonathan Demme is not Louis Malle. He is nowhere near Malle's elegant finesse and his subtle direction of actors. Demme holds the camera close to the actors' faces, which makes for more intimacy, but also, on occasion, a need for dramamine. The actors alternate between naturalistic acting (Shawn did the adaptation), and exaggerated displays of theatricality. The only one who breaks your heart is the great Julie Hagerty as Aline Solness, the Master Builder's wife. As for the young woman who comes back into Halvard Solness' life to exact revenge, Lisa Joyce is so over the top that she elicits titters. She has some good moments, and it is a very hard role, but playing a woman unhinged by childhood abuse, she is 19th century hysterical in a story set today. Solness wears a track suit. Things don't quite jell. Demme can't find a unifying style in the actors, nor much emotional coherence.
Wallace Shawn, as compelling an actor as he is, is grossly miscast in the role of Halvard Solness, an authoritarian, ruthless architect. Shawn was a wonderful and credible Uncle Vanya, but he is not the right type for the role of a man, larger than life, who is, among other things, catnip to women.
Solness needs to be a rock star.
The movie starts promisingly. There is something interesting about monstrous egotism in a small package. Yet one pictures a man who is feared and revered and who is devastatingly attractive to those around him, despite being, or precisely because he is, a massive creep. Frank Langella comes to mind. Two young women drool all over Solness. In this version, this is not believable.
Why this play now? It's about a man who cannot abide competition, a man who has calculated and built his success on the suffering backs of the people around him. He will take down anything and anyone that gets in the way of his rise. He has no scruples. This topic should last an eternity, and Ibsen was much ahead of his day in his acute perception of the all-encompassing domination of men over women. The play is written as a series of powerful revelations that shed light on how spectacularly rotten Solness has been all his life. All his prestige is founded on the basest behavior. Sort of like anyone in power ever.
When well done, adaptations of plays on film get past the staginess and straight into the emotional power of character. Malle did that brilliantly with his Uncle Vanya, which started as a rehearsal with the actors, who then took off and became the characters. Roman Polanski did wonders with Carnage and Venus In Fur, but he is a master filmmaker, as well as an accomplished stage director.
But Demme's and Gregory's muddled approach is not inspired as a filmed play, nor a compelling film. And at over 120 very talky minutes, it's hard to sit through.

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