“A Master Builder”, adapted from the 1892 play by Henrik Ibsen, is a startling, moving and mysterious film masterfully put together by the director Jonathan Demme from the stage play first created by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. It hardly needs stating that when a play is turned into a film, its form—the large amount of talking, the small amount of sets—can be a limitation for viewers used to, shall we say, more spectacular visuals and more action in general. Those limitations, though rather obvious in “A Master Builder” (it was filmed almost entirely within the confines of a New York townhouse) are nevertheless more than overcome by the intensity of the script and the virtuosity of the acting. The set-up is quite simple, but the themes beneath that set-up are complex and mysterious. Wallace Shawn plays Solness, an aging architect who appears to be at death’s door: as the film opens, he is at home surrounded by nurses and hospital equipment and his friends and colleagues are coming to pay him homage. He talks to his doctor, and they discuss the young, who are, according to Solness, about to take over. No sooner is this said than the mysterious Hilda appears—young, vivacious and beautiful, a figure with the power to summon a past (and a future) that involves both Solness and herself. But who is she? And where does she really come from? From this point on, the tension is grippingly apparent, as Hilda, coming to the house with almost nothing, quite easily makes herself at home despite the jealous looks from Solness’ wife, the secrets of the Master Builder become apparent, and the specter of death, looming from the beginning of the film, moves in closer. Solness, who stopped building church towers after a past personal tragedy, is now focused on “homes for families”—but, the viewer wonders, at what price will these towered houses be built? Gregory and Shawn have mined gold from their adaptation, which is made contemporary in language and setting without being distracting. What starts modestly moves to an exciting and mysterious conclusion, a plot that delivers resolution without resorting to sentimentality or nihilism.
Posted by: David