The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center opens Ibsen’s A Master Builder this weekend and revives Hunting Elephants, which played during September’s International Film Festival. The two movies explore aging from opposite ends of the spectrum. Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme brings Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s psychodrama to the screen, while Hunting Elephants unites a comical batch of codgers with a 12-year-old boy to rob an Israeli bank.
An impressive group of professionals, headed by Wallace Shawn, has gathered to give cinematic life to Ibsen’s 1893 drama about an egocentric architect. Working with André Gregory’s theatrical adaptation, Mr. Shawn has translated The Master Builder and directed it, and plays the central character, Halvard Solness. Surrounded by his minions, Halvard is coming to terms with himself at the end of his life.
The director keeps the camera close to the actors’ faces, as they talk to Halvard and react to his responses. Like Louis Malle’s tour-de-force My Dinner with André, A Master Builder is a film more about how the characters reveal themselves in conversation than through representations of their actions. Mr. Demme has dedicated his film to Mr. Malle. The dialogic format is a demanding one, but deeply satisfying from an intellectual standpoint. It emphasizes the surreal, dreamlike qualities of Ibsen’s play and pushes the narrative toward allegory.
One result is to suggest how the play comments on current attitudes toward ambition and success. Mr. Demme employs devices like still shots of Victorian houses and blurred pans across wooded copses to open up the theatrical underpinnings of A Master Builder for the screen. Julie Hagerty plays Halvard’s long-suffering wife; Emily Cass McDonald is his hero-worshipping secretary and fiancée to Regnar (Jeff Biehl). Regnar is the son of Knut Brovik (André Gregory), an architect whose career Halvard destroyed long ago. Lisa Joyce embodies Hilde Wangel, Halvard’s seductive paramour who challenges his end-of-life complacencies.
The movie opens with Halvard lying in a hospital bed, ministered to by nurses. His ailing former rival Knut visits with Regnar, hoping Halvard will give the son’s career a boost. Regnar’s fiancée, who visits with them, reveals her mixed loyalties. The past overshadows Halvard’s and Aline’s marriage, since a fire destroyed Aline’s parents’ house where they were living, and led to the death of the couple’s infant children. A Master Builder will exercise the viewer’s listening skills, but the effort is well worth it.
Israeli director Reshef Levi’s comedy, Hunting Elephants, broaches the infirmities of its three elderly bank robbers and the socially inept pre-teen Yonatan (Gil Blank) through the broad strokes of farce. The death of Yonatan’s father (Tzvika Hadar), who works for a bank as a security expert, launches the plot. When the bank’s manager threatens to seduce Yonatan’s mother, he turns to his grandfather Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai) for help. Joined by two fellow residents of a retirement home, Nick (Moni Moshonov) and Lord Michael Simpson (Patrick Stewart), Eliyahu and his grandson hatch a plot to rob the maleficent bank. This goofy premise doesn’t really hold water, but the pleasures of Hunting Elephants come in watching a band of actors with Mr. Stewart’s skills take over. For those viewers who appreciate the title’s implied joke, the film offers plenty of laughs.
“A Master Builder,” Friday, October 31, 4 p.m., Saturday, November 1, 7:30 pm.
“Hunting Elephants,” Sunday, November 2, 7:30 pm.
All films at M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information, visit mvfilmcenter.com.