The Jonathan Demme film “A Master Builder” will likely appeal more to theater people than to film people, it being Henrik Ibsen and all, as adapted by and starring Wallace Shawn. He plays one of Ibsen’s most formidable train wrecks, the tetchy, egomaniacal and largely autobiographical architect Halvard Solness.
But many appreciate both media, and the way the movies and the stage can carry on a conversation. At any rate some filmed plays are more like certain concert films, low on bombast and high on performance skill, such as the ones Demme has made across several decades.
In the conversational style of “Vanya on 42nd Street” — Demme opens “A Master Builder” with a dedication to that sublime 1994 film’s director, the late Louis Malle — Demme has done well by this long-gestating Ibsen project, the work of Shawn, his longtime artistic collaborator Andre Gregory and their fellow actors. For years, as they did with “Vanya,” Shawn and company rehearsed this tricky property. While Demme hasn’t solved its many vexations, he has encouraged some wonderful work from his ensemble. You believe the relationships even when the behavior and the psychology is frankly nertz.
The narrative can be, and has been, rendered in various degrees of realism and delusional fantasy since Ibsen completed “The Master Builder” in 1892. Like so many Ibsen protagonists Solness is playing the late 19th century Norwegian version of “I’ve Got a Secret.” There was a fatal fire years earlier, and its cause has stoked Solness’ guilt ever since, robbing Solness and his embittered wife (Julie Hagerty, scaldingly good) of their happiness. Diving into his work, Solness became a pluperfect control freak, keeping his talented assistant (Jeff Biehl) under his thumb while canoodling with the assistant’s fiancee (Emily Cass McDonnell), who is also Solness’ bookkeeper.
Then more trouble comes a-knocking. She is Hilde Wangel, played by Lisa Joyce in a ripe performance of intriguingly mixed motives. Ten years earlier, when Hilde was 12, Solness erected his latest building in her town and had an encounter of some kind with her. Now she has come to complete the circle and to call his bluff. Did the much, much older man’s long-ago promises of castles in the air and rapturous fulfillment have any truth to them at all, beyond a momentary dangerous attraction?
Shawn’s adaptation comes with a wraparound concept, placing Solness on his death bed, in home hospice care, his mind very possibly conjuring up Hilde out of the past. This is a modern-dress “Master Builder” but the bulk of it remains quite faithful to Ibsen. I’m not sure any actress could make three-dimensional sense of Hilde, who is part troll-vamp, part artist’s muse, part angel of death. But despite overworking the compulsive laugh, Joyce is excellent. “I have some underwear in my bag here, but it’s absolutely filthy!” she cackles early on, as if revealing the worst about herself and loving it. Joyce nudges Ibsen over into August Strindberg territory, where the derision and the desires run a little wilder.
Typically the master builder himself is played by a strapping, conventionally virile leading man with an edge of madness. (Patrick Stewart did it in London a few years back.) Shawn is not that man. But he responds to the challenge with the subtlest acting of his career, and the characterization neither begs for sympathy nor settles for caricature. Demme’s camera stays close to the action, rendered in interior exchanges, except for a few fleeting glimpses of the outside world as seen through Solness’ troubled psyche.
The result is an odd little success, if not a revelation the way “Vanya” was. Ibsen’s late play may simply resist a first-rate film version. Yet it fascinates after all these years. Above all else Demme is an actor’s friend, and when you see what Joyce and Hagerty come up with here, along with Shawn, the heightened gestures, the flashes of anger and hurt and painfully human comedy, it’s reason enough to look forward to his next experiment.
Lisa Joyce, a Chicago theater alum, will be present for post-screening discussions Saturday (co-hosted by Tribune theater critic Chris Jones) and Sunday (co-hosted by Steve Prokopy of aintitcoolnews.com). For more information go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
“A Master Builder’”
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 2:07
Playing: Friday - Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.