Film Review | A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s cinematic take on the fractious relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung collapses under its own weight, fast.

Close, but no cigar: Michael Fassbender (left) and Viggo Mortensen play the pioneers of psychoanalysis in this much-hyped but underwhelming drama.
Close, but no cigar: Michael Fassbender (left) and Viggo Mortensen play the pioneers of psychoanalysis in this much-hyped but underwhelming drama.

It was always going to be hard.

And no, that's not a lewd pun... though the subject matter of David Cronenberg's potted history of the birth of psychoanalysis - A Dangerous Method - makes it very tempting to slide a 'Freudian' slip of my own.

What I mean to say is that it was always going to be difficult to create a mainstream film packing the necessary bump and thrust to make the story of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender) palatable to cinemagoers lusting after cheap Hollywood thrills.

Oh dear. I've done it again, haven't I?

While Cronenberg's period piece - based on screenwriter Christopher Frampton's play The Talking Cure - is mostly a languid celluloid stretch of talking heads, it begins with blood-curdling screams.

They signal the arrival of the mentally disturbed Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) to a psychiatric hospital in Zurich, where her hysteric episodes are to be treated by the young Dr Jung.

Experimenting with a technique dubbed 'the talking cure' - pioneered by his long-distance mentor Sigmund Freud - he teases out the source of his Russian-Jewish patient's anguish: having been made to habitually strip and endure lashings by her abusive father, she has developed sado-masochistic tendencies.

But Jung's therapeutic efforts do not just lift the lid on Sabine's uncomfortable family history.

Further into their sessions, the ambitious - recently married - young doctor discovers an intellectual equal whose shrewd insights into the human psyche - particularly in relation to sexuality - appear as a stepping stone between his work and that of Sigmund Freud.

While the two engage in a somewhat erratic affair that runs the risk of damning them forever, Jung finally travels to meet Freud.

The relationship that develops between the two medical pioneers - harried as they are by popular opinion - oscillates dangerously between friendship and apprenticeship, with Jung uncertain where he stands next to the elder, towering giant of psychology.

Trying to keep his emotions for Sabina at bay while attempting to dodge social humiliation, Jung is desperate to battle his mentor on one point: sexuality can't be at the centre of all human endeavour, as Freud obstinately believes.

The problem with iconic intellectual friendship-cum-rivalries is not that they're not fascinating in and of themselves. It's just that they don't tend to translate very well on screen.

For all their theorising on sexuality and carnal desire, when you get down it all we've got here is a pair of sharply-dressed men in period costume trotting out their most popular theories to the audience, for all the world as if Cronenberg and co. just lucky-dipped into a Psychology course study guide, fished out some choice terms and sprinkled them on a choppy, slow-moving screenplay that fails to come to life as a cinematic experience.

It's a bit disheartening to see such a gutsy director as Cronenberg appear so weighed down by his subject matter.

Much like The Iron Lady cherry-picked from history to present us with an easily-digestible version of Margaret Thatcher, so here we get Freud and Jung ping-ponging early versions of their best ideas in a way that's neither humane nor interesting. It doesn't help that the cast's contribution feels entirely off-key, either.

Knightley was always an underwhelming actress, so when she's given license to scream and screech to her heart's content, the result is painful. While he certainly appears to be having fun in the role of the Great Patriarch of Psychoanalysis, Mortensen's cigar-chomping Freud - boasting nose prosthetics reminiscent of Nicole Kidman's in The Hours - is less genius eccentric and more of a boorish cowboy... which would have been fun if the film had less lofty aspirations.

So it falls to Fassbender (officially the busiest man in Hollywood) to balance some much-needed dramatic heft into the equation. This he succeeds rather well - his blank-faced, unblinking expression betrays subtle layers of emotion that lesser actors would have permitted to recede into insignificance.

But a lone performance is not enough to save a film from drowning in its own unwieldy ambition.

Although perhaps it's appropriate that, much like its lead characters, what A Dangerous Mind lacks - for all its probing into the human psyche - is evidence of any real emotion.

 

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