Fear of Falling: Rome Review

Rome Film Festival
Wallace Shawn shines in this well-acted piece of filmed theater.

Director Jonathan Demme captures the team of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory staging a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder."

The dynamic duo behind My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street take on another classic of the stage in their big-screen Henrik Ibsen adaptation, Fear of Falling.

With Jonathan Demme replacing the late Louis Malle at the helm, this terrifically performed version of The Master Builder -- based on a screenplay by Wallace Shawn, from his own translation of the Norwegian text -- channels the rage, joy and delusions of an aging architect's final days, where a ghost from his past (played by the exuberant Lisa Joyce) guides him to the great beyond. Premiering in the Rome Film Festival's experimental CinemaXXI section, this dense and occasionally poetic chamber piece should appeal to very upscale audiences both at fests and -- despite production values that are not always top-of-the-line -- in a microrelease catering to theater fans in major cities.

After directing a string of music-related documentaries, Demme returns with his first fictional feature since 2008's Rachel Getting Married, offering up a similar performance-based concept, and one benefiting from a superb veteran cast that includes actor-director Andre Gregory, Larry Pine, Julie Hagerty and leading man Shawn -- who has been developing the project for the last 14 years.

The 70-year-old star, who many may remember from two Malle films and from his hilarious cameo in Woody Allen's Manhattan, would seem like an unusual candidate to play Ibsen's robust and monomaniacal Halvard Solness -- a powerful small-town architect who's unable to hand over his practice to a humble protege (Jeff Biehl), let alone come to terms with his numerous misdeeds and monstrous ego.

Yet Shawn acutely conveys a character whose wickedness, which can be both flagrant and underhanded, is as towering as the weakness that consumes him during his last breaths, painting the portrait of a man who's both remarkably self-consumed and constantly racked by fear and guilt.

Set in Solness' stately country mansion (interiors were shot at the Pen and Brush townhouse in New York City), the film begins with a lengthy scene of the architect and his older mentor, Brovik (Gregory), discussing the possibility of the latter's son, Ragnar (Biehl), stepping up from his job as assistant to become a builder himself.

We soon learn through various conversations -- the movie is 95 percent dialogue, 5 percent establishing shots – that not only is Solness having an affair with his bookkeeper and Ragnar's fiancee, Kaya (Emily Cass McDonnell), but that he's doing so mainly to keep them both as slaves to his practice.

His mania seems to have no limits, as evidenced by his wife (Hagerty), a browbeaten woman if there ever was one, and who Solness describes as having had "the blood drained out of her body" by his loathsome behavior. Left to watch from the sidelines as her husband does as he pleases, she sticks to the background until an unexpected guest arrives, and proceeds to turn their household upside down.

The mysterious visitor, a 22-year-old girl named Hilda (Joyce), shows up on the couple's doorstep and immediately ingratiates herself with Solness, for reasons that soon become frighteningly clear for both him and the audience. With her cackling laugh and strange charms, Hilda manages to win over the patriarch -- who by now has left his deathbed and is in seemingly good health -- only to slowly reveal how, 10 years earlier, Solness took her aside during the unveiling of his latest construction, made her all sorts of promises and came very close to raping her.

Joyce -- who appeared in Oren Moverman's The Messenger -- brings enormous energy to the Hilda role, portraying a damaged young woman with plenty of tricks up her sleeve, and whose attitude toward Solness seems to forever oscillate between admiration and hate. Her scenes opposite Shawn are among the film's richest, filled with a mix of lust and loathing, while creating a sense of disembodiment that will haunt the final acts.

Indeed, as we discover a whole lot more about Solness' past and present transgressions, his obsession with erecting massive towers (the phallic symbolism won't be lost on anyone) and his desire to dominate to the very end, it becomes clear that such realities are about to slip from his grasp. And while she first appeared as a mysterious drifter, Hilda ultimately takes on the role of a seductive angel-faced demon, merrily guiding the master builder to his doom.

With such well-tuned performances and scattered intensity, it's unfortunate that the technical aspects of the film are not always up to par. Initially, the handheld camerawork by Declan Quinn (a regular of Demme and Mike Figgis, and also the DP of Malle's Vanya) is disorienting, reminiscent of some of the rougher Dogme 95 movies -- which, arguably, are part of the same Scandinavian realist tradition started by Ibsen and August Strindberg. The imagery does get steadier, and the lighting a bit warmer, but there's an underlying sense that budget issues came in the way of quality.

While Ibsen specialists may take issue with Shawn's translation, which updates the dialogue to befit contemporary parlance, it never takes away from the power and depth of the original play, of which Fear of Falling is a welcome modern-day edition.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (CinemaXXI)
Production company: Ibsen Project
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Lisa Joyce, Julie Hagerty, Andre Gregory, Larry Pine, Jeff Biehl
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Wallace Shawn, based on the play "Halvard Solness, Master Builder" by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Wallace Shawn
Producers: Andre Gregory, Rocco Caruso, Wallace Shawn
Executive producers: Ronald M. Bozman, Jordan Tappis, Beau Willimon
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Eugene Lee
Costume designer: Dona Granata
Music: Zafer Tawil, Thom O'Connor, Suzana Peric
Editor: Timothy Squyres
No rating, 127 minutes