As tempting as it is, I will try and get through this entire review without making any bad puns. A name like Jung is just begging for it, but I shall resist.
David Cronenberg’s newest film, A Dangerous Method, is an in intriguing portrait of two of the biggest names in psychology and the patient who brought them together. The film tells the story of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his newest patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The movie is an adaptation of the play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay.
The spoiler-free premise: the movie begins with Carl Jung deciding that he will treat Spielrein using a radical new type of treatment – talking. With this new approach, Jung learns many fascinating things that start to fly in the face of some of the established tenets of contemporary psychology. Sabina’s case begins to catch the attention of the father of psychology himself, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Jung decides to go and speak with him about his observations. The relationship between these two historical powerhouses is the crux of the film, and their differing ideas invite the viewer to think about modern psychology and the ethical considerations endemic to psychoanalysis.
I was particularly intrigued with how the movie seemed to emphasize the contrasts between of Jungian and Freudian theory. One of the more striking parts of A Dangerous Method comes when Freud confronts Jung, suggesting that his method of therapy somehow asks the doctor to “play God,” and that his theories include too much superstition. I found Freud’s fear of losing academic credibility as one of the first major psychologists to be incredibly very satisfying brain food. Jung and Freud are still feeling their way around the field when the movie starts, and their constantly changing theories make for fascinating discussions.
A Dangerous Method is intent on exploring many sexual themes, all of which tie into the relationship triangle between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud. Sexuality has always been a large factor in the field of psychology, and as it is explored in this film, we are treated to many different opinions and theories on how we should approach things like sexual desire and abuse both academically and in our personal lives. All three of the main characters are intrinsically linked to these ever-changing viewpoints and this provides the momentum for the pacing of the film.
It is difficult for a story-heavy film such as this to talk about it in any depth without giving away more important aspects of the plot. The period is set nicely through art direction – beautiful turn of the century architecture and costume design really help sell the overall feel of the film. I also appreciated the thought provoking nature of the subject matter, and the willingness of the filmmakers to portray both Jung and Freud in a fairly holistic light.
David Cronenberg has proven to be a fantastic match for the talents of Viggo Mortensen in the past with Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. A Dangerous Method is no different. Mortensen ably handles his role and manages to make a very convincing Freud who plays well off of Fassbender’s Jung. Fassbender himself is as usual at the top of his game, offering the audience a true sense of honesty and vulnerability, while implying he has a strong sense of responsibility for his decisions throughout the film. Knightley has perhaps the strongest showing, giving us an impassioned performance that reveals some serious acting chops.
In the end, A Dangerous Method is an excellent film that knows what it’s about and brings out excellent performances from each of its cast members. However, it does falls into a category I always find challenging to review; there isn’t anything really wrong with the film, but it may not appeal to everyone and doesn’t have any sort of eminent re-watchability that other movies have. Nevertheless, I would still recommend this wholeheartedly to anyone interested in psychology or period dramas.
Whew! Done – and not a pun to be found. I was afreud I wasn’t going to make it.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Dangerously Brief Note: I would just like to credit this film, and presumably the play it was based off of, for giving Sabina Speilrein so much credit for the role she played in the shaping of some of the major theories in Jungian and Freudian psychology. My mother has a doctorate in psychology and had not heard of Sabina Spielrein before I mentioned her – it is my understanding that she is rarely given more than a sentence or two of recognition in textbooks. Again, well done respectfully portraying an unsung hero of the field.