Though primarily thought of as Hollywood’s premiere body horror auteur, David Cronenberg’s latest output has been edging away from the genre where he forged his reputation. While A History of Violence and Eastern Promises were considerably different, at least on the surface, to Cronenberg’s earlier work, latest effort A Dangerous Method is certainly the furthest step the Canadian has taken.
Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, the film tells of the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in the early 1900s that helped birth psychoanalysis. The focus is mostly on Jung as he takes on a young patient named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who presents an intriguing challenge to Jung. Despite her madness, Sabina is bright, insightful and harbours hopes of one day becoming a psychiatrist herself. She soon becomes more than a patient to Jung, acting as an apprentice, a friend and eventually a lover.
It is the subject of Sabina that prompts Jung to contact Freud and the pair begin to build a strong friendship, with the older Freud becoming a father figure to Jung. The good doctors talk for hours on end, sharing their ideas and philosophies regarding their craft. However, the cracks soon begin to show as Freud learns of Jung’s affair with his patient, leading to a breakdown in their friendship.
As Jung and Freud, Fassbender and Mortensen are superb and sparks fly whenever the two heavyweights are on screen together. Fassbender portrays Jung as outwardly suave and controlled, though the inner conflicts bubble beneath the surface. Mortensen’s Freud is a perfect counterpoint, more confident and persuasive than his young colleague. It’s unfortunate that large parts of their interaction takes place via letters, you can’t help but wonder if Cronenberg could’ve contrived a way to have the conversations take place in person, allowing more time for the intellectual sparring that brings the film to life.
However, the most remarkable performance in the film is Keira Knightley, and not for the right reasons. Her screaming, jaw-jutting portrayal of Sabina is so massively over the top that it hogs the screen and almost sinks any scene that she’s in. Even later in the film when she is supposed to be a psychiatrist herself, she is still an overly intense, seething lunatic and it’s extremely hard to believe anyone taking her seriously as a physician. Out of her depth alongside the subtle talents of Fassbender and Mortensen, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Knightley as she flails across the screen with her cod Russian accent. Surely Cronenberg could’ve reined her in as it became apparent she was going far beyond the realms of overacting?
Knightley’s performance and the stagey nature of the material somewhat bog the film down. The 99 minute running time feels a lot longer, particularly when Knightley is on screen, but Cronenberg has crafted an intelligent, good looking film that comes to life when its two talented leads are on screen.