“I wonder if you’re aware of the fact that our conversation has so far lasted… thirteen hours?” Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) asks his follower and colleague Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and this is essentially what A Dangerous Method is: based on the stage play, The Talking Cure, the film is an extended conversation; a psychoanalytical debate that charts the rise and deterioration of the two psychiatrists’ relationship in the first quarter of the 20th century.
The film begins with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) being driven in a horse-drawn carriage to the house of Dr Jung, where she is to be his new patient. Using a few of Freud’s methods, he gradually becomes successful in his attempts to cure Spielrein of her mental disorder and subsequently travels to Vienna to meet Freud for the first time. They discuss their theories relating to the unconscious mind – word association, dream analysis etc. and develop a strong friendship in the process.
One of the more interesting and certainly surprising performances of the film is given by Keira Knightly, an actress we know well for portraying thoroughly British, floor-length-dress-wearing members of the aristocracy. Knightly plays Spielrein with an astonishing physicality, screaming and stuttering in a thick Russian accent and contorting her body into such abnormal positions, that you’d think you were watching The Last Exorcism. At times she is a frightened child, but at other times her manipulative intelligence shines through and she slowly becomes Jung’s love interest and is at heart a masochistic and sexual woman excited by humiliation. A Dangerous Method is one of her greatest achievements so far and demonstrates the true extent of what she’s capable of.
Viggo Mortensen (who appeared also in Cronenberg’s last two films A History of Violence and Eastern Promise sand The Lord of the Rings trilogy) adds an unexpected levity to Freud’s character, giving his monologues a dry wit and self-awareness with which he wouldn’t at first be associated. But as he sits in his armchair, cigar between his teeth, you just want him to go and find Legolas and start killing a few orcs (although his long-sword might be considered a bit too phallic for Freud’s taste). He contrasts heavily with Michael Fassbender, the hero of the moment, who plays Jung – a motivated but altogether serious man, fuelled by ambition and unsatisfied with his wife – with an unremarkable competence; the dialogue is well scripted, but at times he seems bored by it.
It’s interesting that in the trailer for A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg is only described as being the director of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, which hints at the cinematic transformation that is so clearly taking place. Once a pioneer of the Body Horror genre, he offered us such films as Shivers, The Fly and Crash – now it seems that with old age comes a softening in subject matter. A Dangerous Method is not exactly disappointing, but it lacks the powerful storyline that we are so used to in his previous work. The film is at its best in the scenes that show Jung actually putting into practise some of his theories on his wife and Sabina, instead of just discussing them with Freud in a darkened room.