Adapting from the stage to the screen is often more difficult than vice versa. Whereas onstage, you can merely hint at something the audience knows and what it looks like, you can take the large and by focussing in on a small part of it, suggest the whole, translating theatre to the screen can often result in taking something small and simply making it larger which, as anyone who’s ever tried to resize an image knows, simply pixelates it, makes it harder to see clearly. This can also affect the change in acting styles, film performances can seem too small on the stage and theatre performances too big in the cinema, this almost applies doubly to more symbolic pieces where the purposeful surrealism comes across as more fake on the screen. So why, did Wallace Shawn decide it would be a good idea to make a film out of the work of Henrik Ibsen?
The simple answer might be two parts: 1. He knows what he’s doing 2. He’s got Jonathan Demme directing. One of the last projects of the veteran director of Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense and Philidelphia to name but a few, he takes an expertly observed adaptation by Writer, Star & Producer Shawn and simply focuses in on the actors, an excellent choice as so much of the cast are working to such a high level. Shawn as Halvard Solness, the Master Builder in question, miles away from Rex in Toy Story if that’s all you know him for, is astonishing, by turns paternal and threatening, friendly and sickening, a man for whom life has been one convenience after another but he’s well matched by Insecure’s Lisa Joyce, playing Hilda Wangel, a character who if forming the Ibsen Cinematic Universe, would almost certainly be Thor, she equally flits between emotions playing a young woman who is either suffering under a case of severe arrested development or is just as gifted a con-woman as Halvard. There is also able support by the likes of Julie Hagerty, Larry Pine & in a wonderful touch, Andre Gregory, who still maintains that same superb chemistry with Shawn displayed in My Dinner With Andre.
The production does have some internal confusion in terms of costume and location with the modern locations and dress never really coalescing into a feeling of modernising of the speech or themes of the piece. But even though it’s easy enough to accept this as a necessary element because it’s better to go for modern dress (and cheaper for modern locations) than suffer the wrath of those obsessed with period accuracy and avoiding anachronisms. Though really, the only real let-down I can find here is that this is just the play on-screen so if you’re the sort of person who enjoys their films more heavy on the literal imagery than the verbal painting of dialogue, you will find this tiresome. It’s an interesting blend of the naturalistic and the more arch, representative styles, by turns Stanislavski and Brecht and for some, it may reek too much of artifice.
As an interpretation of one of the great works of theatre, it’s actual textuality is near peerless as while there’s no ‘correct’ reading of a text, this one feels both thoroughly considered and well-supported. It seems simple enough to say that this is a film for people who like the theatre, if you’re expecting sumptuous visuals, look elsewhere but if you just want to watch a phenomenal cast handling some fine, fine dialogue, then look no further.
Dir: Jonathan Demme
Scr: Wallace Shawn, Henrik Ibsen
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce, Larry Pine, Andre Gregory, Emily Cass McDonnell, Jeff Biehl
DOP: Declan Quinn
Music: Zafer Tawil, Thom O’Conner, Suzanna Peric.
Prd: Rocco Caruso, Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Runtime: 127 minutes
The Master Builder is available on DVD from the 10th September 2018
A Master Builder is out on DVD & Download Now