Thursday 3 October 2013

Movie Review: A Dangerous Method (2011)

A psychiatric talkfest, A Dangerous Method offers conversations aplenty about the pioneering theories developed to explain the troubles of the mind. But as a film drama, it struggles to engage.

It's early in the 20th century. In Zurich, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives against her will and in a hysterical state at the psychiatry clinic of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Jung starts to apply the conversational methods of Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to calmly communicate with Spielrein and help her probe her history and childhood experiences. Jung also initiates an exchange of letters with the Vienna-based Freud to discuss the Spielrein case and treatment methods. The two men eventually meet and become friends. Meanwhile, Jung's relationship with his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is respectful but cool.

Sabina finally divulges the physical abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her father, and the associated sexual stimulation that warped her sense of humiliation and pleasure. Mostly cured, Sabina starts to work on becoming a psychiatrist herself, and develops theories about human sexuality. Jung's encounter with another psychoanalyst, the unstable and uninhibited Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), convinces him to take a huge risk with Sabina. At the same time, the evolving theories of Sabina and Jung challenge Freud's views, causing a deep rift between the two men.

Essentially a series of stage-bound conversations, with some exchanges slipping into the remoteness of writing and reading letters, A Dangerous Method is assembled by director David Cronenberg as a cerebral exercise. It does provide insight into the early ideas that helped shape psychiatry, but verbal arguments about the true essence of sexuality are of limited interest, except perhaps for students of Freud and Jung. The Christopher Hampton screenplay, based in part on his play, is simply unable to open up the story to fill the demands of the screen, and A Dangerous Method barely escapes the confines of a filmed play.

Keira Knightley's performance starts with an intentionally distressed physicality, her jaw jutted to a disturbing extension, her elbows flailing and her demeanour that of a victim imagining every word to be a blow. It is a brave show, but it also crosses to close-to-lunatic territory, where the efficacy of a talking cure must surely be questionable. Later Knightley settles down to a brooding, thoughtful, lust-filled presence, and in some ways the saner Sabina is more haunting, allowing Knightley to project a subtle threat aimed at Jung's domestic life.

Michael Fassbender as Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Freud get to dress like Thomson and Thompson, furrow their brows, smoke cigars, and engage in thoughtful conversations, fully occupying their characters, but the limitations and utter seriousness of the material rarely allow any latitude for flair by either actor.

Like a well-researched but rather dry lecture, A Dangerous Method can be admired intellectually, but it never quite inspires.

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