Last year, I caught a humbling documentary called André Gregory: Before and After Dinner. Cindy Kleine’s candid look at Gregory’s life and multi-talented career stole my heart and made me very interested in what the artist had to offer for the future.
In the doc, Gregory and his close collaborator Wallace Shawn are working on their latest work – an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder. You may remember Shawn for his role in The Princess Bride, his recent ball-breaking turn in The Double, or as the voice of Rex the Dinosaur in the Toy Story franchise. He has one of those faces – and one of those voices – you recognize in an instant.
During these intimate rehearsals featured in the doc, we see a different side to Shawn. His theatrical presence was refreshing, and showed audiences that the amiable actor can reach deep inside of himself and pull out a different kind of performance.
The adaptation has been in the making for 14 years, and now, movie goers get to watch this reworking on the big screen. A Master Builder was co-produced by Gregory and Shawn, the script was written by Shawn, and Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, and Rachel Getting Married) has been brought on to direct the feature. It pains me to report that this equation strangely doesn’t add up, and the film is actually an uncompromising bore.
Shawn plays the sickly yet hard-nosed lead Halvard Solness, a much respected architect – despite his cynicism – who has an expert eye for fine craftsmanship. Solness lies on a gurney as he snarls at visitors who deliver their news with delicateness and held back tears. After a never-ending first third, the film changes its tone as the format switches from grainy handheld to a warm widescreen presentation. It’s because Solness feels relieved having met cutie-pie Hilde Wangel (played by Lisa Joyce). His compassion glows, but he’s also shocked to relive old memories revealing Hilde’s agenda.
Themes of death and facing demons before life’s final act are addressed, though everything Demme’s film portrays is blown to an extremely high volume and length. Exchanges between characters are stretched further than they should be, and the actors are performing like they’re acting within a small space off of Broadway yet they feel the need to project as if they’re in an amphitheatre. You can visualize their voices reverberating off of the walls.
Lisa Joyce is excellent at hitting all of her required highs and lows within a matter of seconds. Her smile delights us, but her quick turns into tizzies have us feeling concerned and daunted. She can change the meanings behind what she says in a blink of an eye, but also manages to stay consistent to her role. She missteps a couple of times in stilted scenes of unnatural dialogue, but that’s only because she hasn’t been properly reigned.
Here’s the problem: this shouldn’t have been presented as a film. There’s more than enough convolutedly twisty dialogue and loud reactions to convince me that A Master Builder should’ve found a way to a playhouse and dodged movie theatres all together.
A Master Builder has loudness, but it lacks range among the actors and Demme’s direction. Lots of skilled performers are involved with this production, but they all hit the same droning notes that are difficult for a patron to stay tuned in to. So, once Halvard hops to his feet, so does his level of interest. It’s a thankful change of pace.
Like Joyce, Shawn shows his ability to act as he chews on laboured self-written sentences. A face-to-face talk with older architect Knut Brovik (played by André Gregory) is a superb example of how well the two actors work with each other, though the lines do everything they can to sink their chemistry. Above all, as he was in Before and After Dinner, this side of Shawn makes for a refreshing look-see on a character actor we thought we had pegged down.
But, A Master Builder goes on and on, and doesn’t care if the lack of stimulation is taking its toll against the audience’s attention. Demme can’t even add a cinematic feel to this adaptation. His contribution is almost invisible, other than staging actors and being one more guy attached to the project who understands the source material.
In an odd and disheartening flip, the teasing of this passion project was better than the final outcome. Some movie goers may find these theatrics to be suitable, and take in the film as a hybrid of the stage and silver screen. But, don’t be surprised if more people walk out from this experience scratching their noggins and wondering what the heck they just witnessed.
Toronto movie goers will be able to catch A Master Builder at Canada Square, a theatre equally as nice and modest as Gregory and Shawn. A suggestion to the staff: add an intermission. Not only will it add to the theatrical allure of Demme’s drowsy film, but it’ll give audiences a chance to stretch and decide if it’s really worth sticking around for the second act.