A Master Builder

A Master Builder is Jonathan Demme’s film of Andre Gregory’s and Wallace Shawn’s stage adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s late 19th century semi-autobiographical play The Master Builder. The potentially thrilling combination of Gregory and Shawn (a forever-iconic combination since their landmark 1981 film My Dinner with Andre), with Ibsen (second only to Shakespeare as the most frequently performed playwright in the world), and Demme (the Oscar winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, whose films of the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia made him one of the most exciting translators of stage material to cinema) results in a disappointing picture.  Gregory and Shawn reportedly spent 12 years developing the play, but the film feels like it was shot in an afternoon. This impression is probably intentional; there are many directorial choices that feel designed to evoke a naturalistic realism, but these elements run counter to the script’s classically theatrical approach. Shawn wrote the English adaptation himself, as well as the screenplay, and I can imagine this production being mesmerizing on stage, but Demme shoots the film in the manor a rank amateur videographer would shoot a stage play--with exaggerated handheld cameras, constant reframing and refocusing, and jumpy editing that intentionally breaks sightlines and draws attention to cutting between different takes.

Ever since 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, I’ve lamented that one of the last, great film stylists that I grew up with has gone the way of the intentional shaky cam, but at least in that terrific film the technique was appropriate and worked. Here, the overdone style utterly fails in its intention to make the stage-bound work feel intimate and realistic. Indeed it has the reverse effect and keeps us at a distance for far too long. Demme seems to take the opposite approach to his film that Louis Malle took in his 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street, another adaptation of classical theater conceived by Gregory and starring Shawn. Whereas Vanya felt like a grand cinematic rendering of a great play rehearsal, this movie feels like a film student videotaping one. At least that is the case for a great deal of the initial running time. Shawn’s limitations as an actor also keep us from entering into the Ibsen’s story for far too long. His quirky screen presence has always been better suited to small, comic character parts than to dramatic leads. Eventually one gives oneself over to the play and the film. The excellent supporting cast helps bring us in, especially Lisa Joyce as the young woman who enters the Master Builder’s life. But on the whole, A Master Builder feels like a missed opportunity for one of cinema’s greatest stage interpreters to capture what is perhaps the final collaboration between two of New York Theater’s most passionate and  fascinating collaborators. 

Directed by Jonathan Demme
Produced by Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, and Rocco Caruso

Screenplay by Wallace Shawn
Based on the stage production directed by Andre Gregory
of the play A Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen
translated by Wallace Shawn

With: Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce, Larry Pine, Jeff Biehl, Emily Cass McDonnell, and Andre Gregory

Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Editing: Tim Squyres

Runtime: 130 min
Release Date: 11 November 2013
Aspect Ratio: Multiple