Shawn plays Halvard Solness, an architect nearing the end of his life. Solness has reached the top of his game by crushing, misleading, or manipulating the people around him. In Ibsen's version, Solness is aging but perfectly healthy. Here he's on his deathbed, seemingly waiting to draw his last breath, until a vision appears before him, a radiant and loopy young woman (Lisa Joyce). She restores his enthusiasm and vigor. She also urges him to rethink some of the terrible choices he's made in life.
Even if you generally deem Ibsen el-snorro (important but boring), you may get more out of this adaptation than any other. Demme, following in the footsteps of the late Louis Malle, takes a spare, direct approach to the material — his economy pays off in quiet eloquence. And Shawn, with his trademark two-tooth smile, is marvelous: One minute his Solness is a cheerful gnome, happily toting up his achievements like fat gold coins. The next he's a sour gremlin. He's mercurial to the max, a Solness who's treacherous but not soulless.