Review: A Master Builder (2013)

Directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Wallace Shawn; based on the play by Henrik Ibsen; starring Wallace Shawn, Lisa Joyce, Julie Hagerty and Andre Gregory


During their lifelong friendship, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn have always strived to experiment with both forms of cinema and theater. My Dinner with Andre takes place in only one location, but the screenplay engages the viewer in every second. Vanya on 42nd Street has an unusual location and setting, while expanding the themes of Chekhov’s source material. Now with A Master Builder, the duo aim to bring Ibsen’s play to the cinematic setting. Even though this is an admirable task, I cannot say that it is a successful one.

The titular master builder, Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) has enjoyed a life of constant success while abusing his personal relationships. Long married to Aline (Julie Hagerty), Solness has somehow made her life an invisible prison. Having thwarted his former mentor, Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory), the architect strictly refuses to give the old man’s son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), a chance to build a structure of his own. Now faced with illness and old age, the master builder is given a chance of redemption when he is unexpectedly visited by Hilde Wagnel (Lisa Joyce), a young woman who shares an important memory of him in the past.

Like previous Gregory and Shawn collaborations, the film takes place in a closed setting (Solness’s mansion) with only a handful of characters. What the duo choose to focus on are the onscreen acting and the source material’s themes. The cast, especially Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce, perfectly executed their performances. While Joyce conveys a childlike grace, Shawn evokes a sense of tragedy and the desire to be loved, to be valued. Not to be ignored is Julie Hagerty as Aline Solness, whose eyes have seen more tragedy and heartbreak than she can handle. They both wish things could have been different, but are unable to change reality.

Despite admiring the acting, I cannot do the same with the film’s thematic values. The issues of success and ego surround Ibsen’s timeless play. Bearing the title of ‘master builder,’ Halvard Solness can be seen as a tragic hero: his unprecedented rise to prominence is always accompanied by failures and tragedies faced by the ones around his life. To be the man he is at present, his mentor, Knut Brovik, had to be disgraced. His wife’s mansion is burned to the ground, their child is terminated because of it, for him to build houses from the empty lot. This is a curse imposed upon the architect, whom he mistakes as ‘God’s gift.’ Throughout his life and career, Solness’s ego distorts his worldview, trapping him in a state of comfort from the harsh reality. Hilde’s presence brings him happiness for the first time in years, gradually bringing down the builder’s illusion, leading him to the path to redemption. Despite touching on Ibsen’s themes, the movie misses every opportunity to dive deeper into them. Instead, the film’s blend of reality and fantasy manages to confuse and baffles viewers. Moreover, it seems to stay in stasis rather than in motion, making it a dull watch to this reviewer. I don’t guarantee that I will get more out of it on second viewing, or that a second viewing will happen with this one.

I am a fan of experimental cinema, so even if a film like A Master Builder fails to resonate, I still give credit to its creators for deviating from the norm. Nevertheless, out of Gregory and Shawn’s trilogy, this film is the least likely I’d recommend. For its confusion and static plot threads, the film succeeds more in constricting than resonating.