Canadian director David Cronenberg has had something of a career change in recent years. Once renowned for his body horror features, he took a turn towards more psychologically probing thrillers. Horror fanboys might balk at this transformation, but you could argue that Cronenberg hasn’t really changed his spots. His films are still focused on human dysfunction and the less palatable parts of our nature, but this time it’s under the skin.
A Dangerous Method tells the story of perhaps the ultimate psychoanalytical drama, that of Freud and Jung. Cronenberg details how the young and upcoming Jung (Michael Fassbender) is taken under the wing of the more established Freud (Viggo Mortensen), an intellectual buddy duo if you will. Their relationship starts to disintegrate when the two disagree about the right treatment of a wayward patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), which is a microcosm for their wider held views.
The film is handsome and fairly engrossing. There are some Edward Hopperesque mise en scenes, and the era is carefully reconstructed. Fassbender and Mortensen are fine in their roles, though neither character stretches two actors who have given a lot more in other roles. Keira Knightley, however, is a unwelcome distraction. Spielrein suffered from bouts of hysteria and unfortunately Knightley fails to convey this in an authentic fashion. Her gargoyle gurning seems to suggest an actor rooting around for the right way to play a difficult role, but I was yearning for an unknown instead, someone not quite as prim as Knightley.
Much of the film relies on extended dialogues between the characters discussing theories and dreams, and there is only perhaps one set piece in the entire film. This leads me to question whether this story lends itself that well to cinema. It is interesting no doubt, Jung and Freud’s relationship and the ideas that they were pioneering, but you get the sense that you would get a richer, more in depth reading from a book on the subject rather than a film. Additionally, the difficult material leads Cronenberg into some stagey drama that occasionally feels like a parody of a serious Hollywood biopic.
It’s still an intriguing, insightful film, but not wholly successful in its execution.