Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Christopher Hampton (screenplay and play “The Talking Cure”), John Kerr (book)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen
Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) are colleagues pioneering the field psychoanalysis. Jung encounters a patient; Sabina (Keira Knightly); that expands his understanding of the field at the expense of being able to control his impulses.
With collaborations such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises under their belt, the prospect of another Cronenberg and Mortensen joint had me very excited indeed. The additions of the leading man of the last year Michael Fassbender and a screen story of the father of psychoanalysis Freud (Mortensen) and his most famous associate Carl Jung (Fassbender) was all the ingredients that I thought were needed; unfortunately it felt like something was missing.
Cronenberg does a good job of getting back to the period. The beige office spaces are contrasted with the early colours of scholarly materials. The time seems to lack vibrance – it’s a demure and repressed facade to the deeper, primal subconscious (ID) that the studies of Freud and Jung uncover. The attention to detail is superb, the spaces transport you back to a gentile time of eastern Europe prior to the 2nd World War.
The Hampton script (adapted from the play) is afforded a more cinematic telling; while Cronenberg certainly capitalizes on constructing spaces that force the characters closer together. Proximity is essential in the Doctor/Patient ‘talking cure’ scenes to emphasize their physical relationship/chemistry. That said – there aren’t as many scenes of Fassbender and Mortensen across from one another as you might expect. Their conferences serve as waypoints in the story and punctuate Jung’s progression in studies (inspired by his relationship with Sabina). Sabina is the catalyst for the leaps in their studies. She’s a patient who was sexually abused as an early teen and suffers from psychosis. The story focuses on the Jung/Sabina relationship and how coming to terms with the abuse and quenching or coming to terms with the sexual fantasies/urges that remain. There’s a sexual catharsis that’s seemingly inherent in her treatment that she craves and that Jung struggles to come to terms with.
So much of the film then relies on Knightly’s performance; she’s the lynch pin; and the female actor portraying Sabina has to transition from lunacy, to deep psychosis into normality through the sexual satisfaction. Knightly’s performance did not have the strength or resonance to support the weight of the film. Her acting range has always been fairly limited and her best performances seem to lay in young women with a propensity to make stupid mistakes and attempt to make up for them (Atonement). Her heavily accented Sabina felt all too staged and overplayed and that affected the performances of her co-lead.
Fassbender plays the sexually repressed Jung coming to terms with the fact that his field is required to have an innate understanding of how repressed desire manifests itself in people. He’s powerless to deter Sabina’s advances and the temptation to participate in unlocking the desires have him torn. However, due to the superficiality in Knightly, Fassbender’s Jung at times felt false.
Mortensen is the highlight of the film for me. He delivers a beautifully demure and calculated performance as Freud that subverts the expectations of the famous man. He’s a wiser and more distant presence than I first expected but I found myself looking forward to every minute of screen time that he was allowed.
A Dangerous Method comes close to the calibre of Cronenberg’s recent fantastic dramatic outings with Fassbender’s solid tortured performance alongside stand-out support from Mortensen; unfortunately the film hinges on the performance of the Sabina character that in Knightly’s hands lacked the necessary punch to elevate this film.