Fans of David Cronenberg may be at first put off by the pristine stuffiness that envelops A Dangerous Method. While the historical basis for the film is depicted in John Kerr’s “A Most Dangerous Method,” the screenplay has been adapted by Christopher Hampton from his 2002 stage play “The Talking Cure,” and it shows. This is a departure for Cronenberg despite the familiar slant of sparring repression and sexuality, a verbose historical drama that examines the fractured relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and adds an expected element to the mix – Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient of Jung’s who becomes something infinitely more.
Much ink has been and will be spilled admiring, deriding, but more likely attempting to describe Knightley’s go-for-broke performance as Spielrein, afflicted by an inexplicable malady when she arrives as a patient at a ward where a young Jung attempts to make headway using Freud’s techniques. In treating Spielrein, he uncovers that her deep-seated neuroses are sexual in nature and is able to successfully rehabilitate the young woman, who desires to study psychoanalysis herself. In curing Spielrein, Jung falls for her and the two begin an adulterous affair, engaging in the same practices that drove Spielrein to madness, but now under lustful pretenses. Their relationship threatens to upset the balance of Jung’s work and his home life, should wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) become aware.
You’re probably wondering how Freud factors into all this — well, Mortensen doesn’t make an appearance until we’re well into the proceedings and when he does, it’s a full-bodied performance, an academic and an intellectual whose confidence makes him a convincing debater and a devastating critic. Jung’s scenes with Freud and a key scene Spielrein shares with the founder of psychoanalysis are among the best in the film. Hampton’s dialogue is flush with ample wit and the verbal sparring that goes on between Fassbender and Mortensen is subtle and satisfying.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the film — despite its title, and Cronenberg’s proclivity for sudden bursts of violence, A Dangerous Method remains frustratingly inert. There is a little at stake and Jung is frequently so careless and selfish that it is difficult to summon up much pity should the secret affair unwind. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is lovely and there is a good amount of well-composed shots of the cast conversing in hushed tones or eyeing each other longingly — but for what purpose? What do we as an audience gain for a stuffy film that works to show the cracks in conservative thinking while tipping its hat to it via set design, cinematography and music?
I’m certainly not the best to point this out, but once Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) briefly bursts into the picture, it’s a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart of it. Gross, an Austrian analyst who at the time advocated free love and nursed an unhinged libido, is given real depth by Cassel. His appearance is meant to further shake Jung’s status quo, but his spirit lingers long after Cassel is most assuredly gone. It’s a performance that feels out of place, however, because the film moves so slowly, the drama is squelched by pacing.
One true moment of brilliance, and a reason to recommend this film after all, comes very close to the end of the film. Sabina Spielrein and Jung meet again, speaking in person for likely the last time. Jung has severed ties with Freud, who once saw the younger man as a successor and has committed to his work and a life of little inertia. Spielrein would perish at the hands of the SS not long after, while Freud managed a miraculous escape but lost family. Jung needed not budge while the Nazis exterminated many of his colleagues; certainly he was not a collaborator, but there is a hint — in both the third act of the film and Fassbender’s performance — of a man frozen in the moment, forever repressed despite taking grand steps in his field and opening doors for new thoughts on sexuality. A Dangerous Method may inspire you to look more into the lives of these individuals, as it did me, and that is no small feat.