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Master Builder, A
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by Jay Seaver

"An interesting construction from fine architects."
4 stars

Like a lot of people, I tend to have this vague knowledge that Wallace Shawn is more than the guy with the funny voice and the odd face, that he's a playwright and an actor who has been a central part of some of the artiest of art-house films. "A Master Builder" offers up a glimpse of the more somber, serious-minded Shawn, and it's an eye-opening reminder of what he can do that even his less completely comedic roles don't always hint at. In fact, it's almost strange when something like his frequent screen persona emerges.

Shawn plays Halvard Solness, the architect of the title, who is a petty tyrant even as he receives visitors on his sickbed. First is Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory), father to Solness's apprentice Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) - himself engaged to the firm's secretary/bookkeeper Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell) - begging his former student to allow Ragnar to take the lead on an upcoming project, so that he can see something his son built before he dies. Then comes Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine), who is not just the family physician but probably the only friend Halvard's wife Aline (Julie Hagerty) has. And, finally, there is Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a 22-year-old traveler who claims Solness made certain promises to her ten years ago, an encounter he finds it distressingly difficult to remember.

A Master Builder comes from Henrik Ibsen's play, which translated for Andre Gregory's stage adaptation before writing the screenplay, and there's no mistaking its stage roots. It breaks down into several long conversations, sometimes with participants dropping in and out, but generally finding a resting position in the one-on-one. Between Shawn and Ibsen, the dialog never sounds entirely natural - it's the sort of [screen] play that exists in large part to put meaty chunks of words in actors' mouths - but does a fair job of making scenes between two people feel conversational as opposed to being just ways for them to extract information from each other for the audience's benefit. The play does occasionally err in the other direction, in that folks not enraptured with the performances may occasionally grumble about how these folks are taking far too much care not to mention important things until the moment of maximum dramatic impact.

But, then, that's how plays work, and Shawn certainly does his utmost in this one's service. Even putting his comedy roles out of one's head, he is in total command of the first act, making Solness a domineering tyrant even if he's tethered to his bed by various tubes, a source of casual but precisely targeted bile. He cheers up some later on, and while there are moments when that seems a little wobbly, like neither Shawn nor director Jonathan Demme is entirely sure whether is entirely sure whether this laughter is an affectation or genuine-but-creepy. That's mostly a bump in the road, though, because as the movie goes on, he's fantastic, pivoting masterfully even if a scene calls for it multiple times during a fairly short exchange or managing to convey pathos in the same breath as truly conceited selfishness.

I suspect some of his more awkward deliveries may be deliberate, though, in that they serve to highlight just how much Lisa Joyce is doing a lot of the same things as Hilde - for a pretty young woman, she certainly makes an interesting mirror to Shawn's Solness. It's a bit of a tough way to go, and even when she's good, which is most of the time, it's kind of an odd-seeming performance. She is just part of a strong ensemble around Shawn, with longtime collaborator Andre Gregory excellent as Knut and Emily Cass McDonnell making someone who could seem vacant as Kaia interesting. The real standout among the spring cast is Julie Hagerty as Aline; she's a terrific combination of fragile and resentful as Halvard's long and deeply suffering wife; the screen seems to crumple with her.

Director Jonathan Demme has been busy in recent years although this is his first dramatic feature since Rachel Getting Married, and it's the same sort of intimate, cinema-verité style as that movie (and some of the documentaries that have been his main output for the past decade). It's an intriguing choice for something best known as a stage drama: There's still the sense of being bound to a single location - in this case, the inside of the Solness home - and Demme doesn't cut away from that for flashbacks or to show what the characters describe outside a window. He and cinematographer Declan Quinn do frame tight, though, using close-ups that have the characters much more in each other's faces than might be the case in live theater, letting the audience scrutinize every bit of an expression on the actors' faces.

I'm not sure how popular "A Master Builder" will be among those who are not theater enthusiasts, and they may have issues with some of the liberties Shawn, Gregory, and Demme have apparently taken with the story. It's a fine showcase for Shawn's theatrical talents, though, and it's never bad to be reminded that the guy is much more than a toy dinosaur.

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originally posted: 09/18/14 10:41:07
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Directed by
  Jonathan Demme

Written by
  Wallace Shawn

  Wallace Shawn
  Julie Hagerty
  Larry Pine
  Lisa Joyce
  Andre Gregory
  Winsome Brown

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