Film Review: A Dangerous Method

Arty but repressed melodrama about the early days of psychoanalysis, including the simmering feud between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and their relationship with deranged patient Sabina Spielrein.

Restraint is generally not a word used to describe David Cronenberg's films, but it is the guiding factor behind A Dangerous Method, a look into three pioneering figures in 20th-century psychiatry. Useful as a crash course in psychoanalysis, the film is beautiful to look at but weirdly unsatisfying to sit through. Respectful reviews and a provocative performance by Keira Knightley will not be enough to win over a wide audience.

Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, first seen shrieking in the back of a carriage that is bringing her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), at the start of his career, treats the sputtering, hostilely maladaptive Spielrein with techniques developed by the Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Under questioning, she reveals a childhood in which her father's abuse brought her sadomasochistic pleasure. Although married to the prim and wealthy Emma (Sarah Gadon), Jung starts an affair with Spielrein.

Jung also begins to assert himself against Freud, a mentor and father figure, by questioning the elder doctor's theories on anal fixation. Freud, on the other hand, has doubts about Jung's belief in spiritualism. The two carry on decorous debates in dining rooms, studies, and on ocean liners, each failing to persuade the other until an irrevocable rift occurs.

Working from his play, screenwriter Christopher Hampton uses Freud's theories of sexual development and transference, as well as Spielrein's concept of sex as a self-annihilating act, as driving forces in the plot. Jung, however, remains the dominant character, confident before others even while deluding himself about his own nature. It's a good opportunity for Michael Fassbender, and quite a contrast from the sex addict he portrays in Steve McQueen's Shame. His Jung is a plodder rather than a visionary. In much the same way, the film on the whole offers historical facts without much insight.

Mortensen, lately a fixture in Cronenberg's films, does little to interpret Freud other than to sport a full beard and smoke cigars. Top-billed Keira Knightley will garner most of the attention in A Dangerous Method, largely because she feigns sex in a couple of semi-nude scenes. The actress works hard, contorting her limbs and baring fearsomely vulpine teeth, but she is let down by a script that is alternately precious and blunt. Would Spielrein really say to Jung, "I want you to be ferocious" or "I want you to punish me"?

The most surprising element in the film is Cronenberg himself, who adopts a self-effacing, almost anonymous style. For a director who made his reputation with bodily fluids and chilling psychological perversities, A Dangerous Method could fit quite comfortably on the BBC or PBS. And it seems likely that most viewers will watch the film on television rather than seek it out in theatres.