Sunday, 16 August 2015

A MASTER BUILDER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Wallace Shawn knocks another one out of the park with his great Ibsen adaptation, now on Criterion Blu-Ray

A Master Builder (2014)
Scr. Wallace Shawn
Dir. Jonathan Demme
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce,
Larry Pine, Andre Gregory, Emily Cass McDonnell, Jeff Biehl

Review By Greg Klymkiw

This marvellous Henrik Ibsen theatrical reverie has been beautifully adapted by screenwriter Wallace (My Dinner With Andre) Shawn and tuned into a compelling, funny and moving feature film by Jonathan Demme. It is at once the imagining of Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a young woman who was once inappropriately wooed as a child by the film's male protagonist, the famed architect and developer Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn).

The film is as much a trance-like meditation as it is a death dream, though played out quite naturalistically as a linear narrative until the dreams of both the living and the dead slowly, subtly take over and we're plunged into a heartbreaking lament for the lost dreams of youth and old age.

Shawn's screenplay wisely does not betray the theatrical roots of the piece by unnecessarily opening it up, but keeping the action centred and played-out within the majestic Holness estate. Halvard built the home to replace the one which burned down, destroying all of the family heirlooms and memories along with his own children. It is within this comfortable new house in which he's he's been living with his long-loyal-and-suffering wife Aline (Julie Hagerty), whilst working with an assistant, Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), the fiancé of his young architectural junior partner Ragnar Brovik (Jeff Biehl) who is, in turn, the gifted son of Halvard's aging former partner and best friend Knut (Andre Gregory, the "Andre" of the aforementioned film masterpiece and theatrical director of the stage version).

The brainy, beautiful, ethereal Hilde comes into both the strained professional and personal lives of the ailing Halvard, She's more than a match for the cranky, dweebish, toad-like, yet brilliant old architect and much of the drama plays out in a combination of fractious relations from fifteen years earlier in their lives. A strange intellectual discourse seems to overtake her reminiscences of the clearly uncomfortable wooing Halvard attempted upon Hilde when she was just 14-years-old. What she reminds him of, finally, is not the pedophiliac overtures, but rather, the moment when his senses took hold of him and he instead urged her to come into his life when she was an adult. Most notably, Halvard promised Hilde the dazzling notion of "castles in the sky". In a nutshell, she's held this promise close to her heart these many long years and she's come to collect.

Director Jonathan Demme attempts to maintain the stylistic approach brought by the late, great filmmaker Louis Malle (Au revoir les enfants, Atlantic City, Pretty Baby) to both My Dinner With Andre and its followup, Vanya on 42nd Street.

Demme plays out scenes in nice, generous takes, often in two-shots and only in claustrophobic closeups when absolutely necessary and his overall visual design allows for cuts and punch-ins so judicious that rather than jarring us, they appear as grand punctuation marks to infuse the work with an ideal sense of shock/surprise to be both showy (intentionally so) and to move the drama ever forward.

Eschewing the fastidious, though middle of the road craft he employed on work like the ludicrously overrated Silence of the Lambs and the execrable Philadelphia, Demme comes much closer in tone and spirit to his concert films with the Talking Heads and Neil Young, as well as his delicate touches on work like Melvin and Howard and Handle With Care, Demme is faced here with the seemingly unenviable task of carrying Malle's torch, but ultimately making the film his own.

The pace of the film is modulated with a delicacy that allows us to take in the gorgeous performances and dazzling interplay between the actors. The writing is so solid that it provides a superb roadmap for Demme's sensitive direction that at several points we're jarred, not by cuts, but by performances which, mostly via Shawn and Joyce, take place within gorgeously composed shots with little or no camera movement and yet exploding kinetically with some of the strangest bursts of cacophonous laughter between two characters as the film progresses.

Though the visual, tonal shifts into reverie are subtle, they're also plainly obvious if you are looking for them, allowing us to enjoy the relationships between the film's characters as they would and/or could have been, but without any false trick pony "surprises".

The film is finally as hypnotic as the two other works in the Wallace Shawn/Andre Gregory canon that even as we watch this touching tale of love, yearning and redemption, we do indeed forget that the dramatic arc is one of reverie and when it culminates as such, our emotions are genuinely tweaked because we're both astounded by the consummate artistry of the work as much as we are by the sheer, unalterable humanity of this great, great film.


A Master Builder is available on a great Criterion Blu-Ray, one its own or in a fabulous box which includes My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. The gorgeously produced Blu-Ray for this film comes with a lovely high-definition digital master, supervised by director of photography Declan Quinn, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a ew interview with director Jonathan Demme, stage director–actor André Gregory, and writer-actor Wallace Shawn, conducted by film critic David Edelstein, a ew conversation between actors Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce, a new program featuring Gregory, Shawn, and their friend, author Fran Lebowitz in conversation. There is a trailer and an excellent essay by film critic Michael Sragow

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In Canada, buy HERE

In USA, buy HERE

In UK, buy HERE