It’s one of history’s greatest ironies: The pioneering psychologists, those men and women who first stepped foot onto the vast expanses of our subconscious minds, were themselves not exactly the tightest screws. Although according to “A Dangerous Method,” they might very well have given some pretty damn good screws.
Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own 2002 play, The Talking Cure, itself based on the 1993 book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr, the new film presents the early 20th-century rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as an slow-burning academic dispute interspersed with the occasional lurid sexual escapade. Oh, to be debating the nature of the self with Freud one minute and spanking your attractive student-turned-colleague — a woman who happens to look like Kiera Knightly — the next. The life of the mind is a wondrous thing.
That director David Cronenberg would decide to take on this material isn’t surprising in and of itself. He’s a filmmaker who’s at his most comfortable when plunging into sin (he made his mark with 1996’s “Crash,” a study of the car accident as aphrodisiac). What is surprising is the timidity with which Cronenberg approaches his protagonists, a restraint that surely Jung, Freud and Jung’s lover Sabina Spielrein would have all diagnosed as unhealthily repressive.
Just because it’s timid, though, doesn’t mean “A Dangerous Method” lacks for entertainment. It’s simply gripping in a more refined manner than one comes to expect from a Cronenberg film. For the vast majority of the movie, the world-famous psychoanalysts on screen do what they do best: talk. They bounce theories off each other, parse through the meanings of cryptic dreams, banter about humanity’s deeply suppressed desires as though they were arguing politics. In short, Freud and Jung analyze each other, and the drama’s central appeal lies in their simultaneous inability to analyze themselves.
Fassbender dominates the film, appearing in nearly every scene, armed with the kind of professional poker face that dares you to guess what he’s hiding. Though Jung’s foil, in the context of history, is supposed to be Freud, Mortensen’s presence in the film is too far removed (both emotionally and physically, as the two only rarely occupy the same country) to be the protagonist’s ideological counterpart. That role instead falls to Spielrein, who as she falls deeper and more disturbingly for Jung forces him to challenge his own views on morality. She analyzes him, in other words.
It should be said that Knightly, donning an impressive Russian accent and an even more impressively removable corset, is oddly more convincing as a raging loon in the film’s first act than she is as a composed psychology scholar for its remainder. Still, she’s a cast standout — no small feat in a character-driven play adaptation.
Unfortunately for Cronenberg, we’ve already seen an onscreen analysis of a famous researcher caught between perversion and brilliance. His name was Alfred Kinsey, and his story was expertly realized by Bill Condon in 2004’s “Kinsey.” In that film, Liam Neeson’s sexologist leaped across the gender divide, videotaped other fornicating couples and interviewed a pedophile, all while struggling to make sense of what fueled his own strange desires. The rabbit hole had been opened. Here it sometimes seems as though Cronenberg and Hampton are simply mucking about, with limp staging and production design that doesn’t allow us to see the film as anything other than a direct translation of the play.
Since Jung was challenging the man who essentially pioneered modern psychosexual theory, watching him in his moments of realization should feel more… well, stimulating. But if it’s not quite the dangerous Cronenbergian ribaldry we’ve come to expect, at least viewing “Method” is an engagingly theatrical experience, albeit one that may cause you to lose confidence in your own therapist.
Opens Friday, November 16, at the E Street Cinema, Bethesda Row Cinema and AMC Loews Shirlington in Arlington, VA.
A Dangerous Method
Written by Christopher Hampton; based on his play and the book by John Kerr
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Kiera Knightley