Traditionally, about the most damning dismissal of any screen drama is to call it “filmed theater” (although Serge Daney once coined an even more damning epithet: “filmed cinema”). Film critics are habitually wary of cinema that’s based on or about theater, as being somehow fundamentally uncinematic, an ersatz hybrid, not the real thing (that is to say, not either real thing). This despite a history of extraordinary films which play on the differences and affinities between the two forms: Kurosawa, Kozintsev, Welles, Olivier doing Shakespeare; chamber pieces by Bergman, Oliveira, Rohmer, Polanski; von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay; Rivette’s play-within-a-film constructions… But when a movie presents itself as primarily a play that’s been filmed, cinephiles are likely to back off.

I don’t have any particularly strong memories of Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, his 1994 collaboration with Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, except that it features a brilliant performance by Julianne Moore, presented without superfluous distraction. In it, a group of actors arrive at an empty Manhattan theater and slip seamlessly from the reality of the venue space into a performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, as adapted by David Mamet. You’re constantly aware of the gap between the actors on screen and their 1890s Russian characters, between the bare boards of the New York theater and the play’s rural setting—and that gap, in your mind, constantly widens and narrows.

Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder is, seemingly, a much simpler proposition. Dedicated to Louis Malle, it presents itself as a fairly faithful screen version of Ibsen’s play The Master Builder (or, as it’s credited here, Halvard Solness the Master Builder). The film distances itself slightly from the original by substituting an indefinite article, as if to remind us that this is just one possible take on Ibsen—but distances itself less than when it premiered in Rome last year under the title Fear of Falling, which signposts the key theme far too blatantly. The screenplay is a new adaptation of Ibsen by Shawn, and the film bears the credit “Created for the stage by André Gregory”’; the duo had already worked on this production for 14 years. That might suggest Demme didn’t have to do much beyond turn up at the location, Manhattan’s stately Pen and Brush Club, for a week and simply point his, or rather DP Declan Quinn’s, camera at the actors. So you come to A Master Builder thinking “Is that all there is?”—and you end up getting something considerably more.

A Master Builder

Here’s the story: Halvard Solness is a builder-architect specializing in the construction of very tall spires and towers—a former creator of churches who has turned to building homes, for reasons to do with his and his wife Aline’s horrific backstory. Solness employs a young draughtsman, Ragnar, son of the aged Brovik, Solness’s former boss who’s now his assistant. Ragnar wants to create his own buildings, but Solness won’t give him a break—supposedly because he can’t dispense with Ragnar’s draughting skills, but in reality because he’s terrified of younger competition. Ostensibly to keep Ragnar in place, Solness has hired the young man’s fiancée, Kaya, as his bookkeeper—but, the play’s ambiguities being what they are, it really seems that Solness is detaining Ragnar in order to keep Kaya in his own sexual thrall. Then another young woman, Hilde Wangel, turns up out of the blue brimming with an ingénue’s adoration…

But Hilde’s attentions are not what they seem, and one measure of any staging of the play is the way it brings out the strangeness and danger of the three-way dynamic between her, Solness, and Aline. First published in 1892, The Master Builder was partly inspired by Ibsen’s relationship with a Viennese woman named Emilie Bardach; he was 61 when they met, she was 18. In the play, Hilde reminds Solness, who claims to have forgotten, that she was only 12 or 13 when, years earlier, he kissed her, called her his princess, and promised to give her a kingdom. Hilde’s extreme youth in her story may have been read differently by late-19th-century audiences, who might have thought it acceptable for an eminent male to fuss over an underage girl; today, we’re more likely to read Solness’s attentions as an act of abuse, and that’s the theme that gives this film its disturbing force.

Ibsen’s notes emphasize Solness’s status as an embodiment of masculine power riding for a fall: “He is a middle-aged man, strong and forceful, with close-cropped, curly hair, a dark moustache, and thick, dark eyebrows.” Most productions cast someone young enough to plausibly play lover to a Hilde in her early twenties: recent versions have featured John Turturro (at BAM) and Stephen Dillane (at London’s Almeida Theatre) opposite Wrenn Schmidt and Gemma Arterton, respectively, as Hilde. In this film, the casting of Shawn might look downright perverse, or like bizarre self-aggrandizement on the actor-writer’s part. Here’s this bald, diminutive, whiny-voiced, altogether comical-looking guy, and he’s supposed to be exerting a potent sexual dominion over both Kaya and Hilde. Okay, so Hilde describes Solness as “some weird, half-human mountain creature” (some English versions simply have “troll”), but she’s apparently paying him a weird compliment, portraying him as some mythical lover cum earth spirit. But seriously, to present the 70-year-old Shawn unambiguously as a magnetic object of adoration for young women, that would be as ludicrous as… well, I’m sure you can think of your favorite Woody Allen movie.

A Master Builder

Of course, Demme and his collaborators know exactly what they’re doing, and make it clear from the start that Solness is a spent force. The novel twist here is to open with Solness on his sickbed, suffering from some undefined but grievous ailment. When Brovik (Gregory) comes to his bedside, both men look ravaged. Gregory’s lined face and creaky voice, set against Shawn’s petulant, impatient whine and his repertoire of sour grimaces, together suggest two grey-faced, depleted old adversaries, still feebly warring. And Shawn’s head on the pillow looks oddly detached from the rest of his body, giving him the appearance of an imperious, cantankerous baby laying down the law to all around him. Suffice to say, when his face draws close to that of a trembling Kaya (Emily Cass McDonnell), it’s a monumentally troubling moment.

Demme has described his film as “a haunted house movie”, which is very apt; the patrician expanses of the Brush and Pen, standing in for the Solness residence, certainly evoke an artificially preserved, enclosed world haunted by past horrors. But I’d be more inclined to think of this as a home-invasion thriller. Early on Solness predicts, “The younger generation will turn up one day and knock on the door,” and soon enough Hilde arrives—with a knock like a death knell, as arresting as the nocturnal hammering in Macbeth.

With her entrance, Solness’s world and the film itself simply explode. Lisa Joyce’s Hilde is an alarming, excessive bombshell. She strides in wearing all white—scarf, high socks, shorts—with a mane of golden hair, drinking in the world through enormous eyes: she’s an intensely sexual presence, at once ingénue, hippie wayfarer, and exterminating angel, resembling a cross between a Seventies centerfold and one of Robert Crumb’s outdoorsy fantasy women. She’s irresistible, and possibly deranged—although pretty much everyone here is, in one way or another. When Hilde reminds Solness of what happened between them, he denies it—then, under her spell, confesses. The interactions between the pair in the first act are mesmerizing, and Joyce’s explosive laugh, sometimes a girlish peal, at others suggesting the cackle of an avenging fury, is quite terrifying. Joyce plays up Hilde’s sexuality to tremendous effect: when Hilde gushes over the priapic towers that are Solness’s specialty, we don’t know whether she’s herself sexually obsessed or mocking his phallic pomposity.

A Master Builder

By framing the drama with the circumstance of Solness’s illness, the film suggests we’re watching a deathbed delirium, as if he is summoning up Hilde as a punishing phantom. And by filming in a real, fully fleshed-out setting rather than on the overt stage space of Malle’s Vanya, Demme strikes a tantalizing balance between naturalism and Solness’s inner world. It also means that the performances come across somewhat differently: you know the people on screen are actors doing Ibsen, but their intensity also suggests that Ibsen’s characters are themselves enacting a psychodrama, a grim ceremony that can only end in death.

It took me a while to adjust to the heightened tone, but this is a terrific performance film, and brilliantly cast. Crackling with neurotic electricity, Julie Hagerty’s Aline suggests the emaciated intensity of a medieval martyr and the bitter monomania of a character who now channels all her desire into a fixation with “obligation”; and she and Joyce make astute complementary casting, their huge eyes uncannily suggesting mother and daughter, or versions of the same woman. Dr. Herdal is played by Larry Pine, who was also in Vanya on 42nd Street—one of those quintessential “that guy” actors whose faces you recognize, and who comes into his own here as a discreet, insightful fount of sanity, but who’s also probably indulging Solness in his febrile confusion. As for Shawn, he really is masterful: the actor has often put his physique and his tetchy manner to cartoonish comic use (Malle’s Crackers was a good example of his half-man, half-turtle persona), but his seriousness here, the outright vulnerable monstrosity of his Solness, is truly something.

As for Demme and long-term collaborator Quinn, who also shot Vanya: just pointing the lens? Not quite. They may conceal their hand, making the camera presence seem as casual as possible; perhaps the most Nordic thing about the film is the echo of early Dogme handheld style, hovering close to the actors’ faces. This creates an unsettling, oppressive intimacy, but the apparent looseness of the approach makes you all the more aware when certain shots suddenly display a symbolic resonance: a brief wide of Solness and Aline sitting isolated in their empty kitchen, or the close-up in which a wild-haired Hilde dominates the screen, while behind her, Solness (or really, just the top of his bald head) looms, grumbling and gnome-like. Filmed theater? Absolutely, but also, to my complete surprise, something else again.