By Brian Hall
“A Dangerous Method” is a leisurely but thoughtful look at the affecting relationships between psychiatrists Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and patient turned practitioner Sabina Spielrein. David Cronenberg directs this turn of the 20th century tale written by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the stage play it’s based on, itself based on diary entries by Spielrein and letters between Jung and Freud.
The film opens with Jung, sprucely inhabited by Michael Fassbender, beginning treatment on Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a well educated Russian girl brought to him in a manic state. She has endured years of sadistic abuse and Jung attempts to treat her with the titular method in question – psychoanalysis, or the “talking cure.”
The treatment is regarded as risky by some because of the potential intimacy it can create between doctor and patient, and in time, this proves true for Jung and Spielrein. During this treatment, Jung reaches out to the father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen. This correspondence evolves into a meaningful mentorship Freud hopes will result in an eventual, professional passing of the torch.
As Sabina’s mental health improves, she begins to find herself enamored with her doctor – a feeling that happens to be mutual. Jung is now forced to wrestle with staying true to his faithful but detached wife, or submit to his impulses against his better judgment.
Further clouding Jung’s decision making is a devil on his shoulder – or id, if you prefer – by way of an addict prone doctor he’s treating played by a brief but memorable Vincent Cassel. Eventually Jung and Spielrein enter into an affair that stands to unravel his sense of self and threatens to fracture the relationship between he and Freud.
Whereas most movies “based on a true story” feel the need to conveniently package true events into familiar movie beats, “A Dangerous Method” is perfectly content simply dropping us in on these people over the years to observe key moments and watch as their evolving theories and analysis – both professional and concerning one another – challenge themselves and their relationships.
Although we are seeing this story through Jung’s eyes, it still has a fly on the wall feel to it that makes it a credit to the actors that it’s so interesting to watch. All three leads create diverse but equally captivating portraits. Knightley carries the weightiest arc, introduced to us screaming and contorting, then emerging as a delicately repaired woman, growing into and claiming both her intellect and sexuality.
Fassbender and Mortensen also excel in creating a subdued but captivating friendship that sees its ups and downs over the years. While Jung even refers to Freud as a father figure at one point, neither can measure up to who exactly they wish the other to be – several subtle moments the two share on a ship headed to America portray this brilliantly.
The characters in “A Dangerous Method” are constantly attempting to diagnose one another through their personally filtered methods of analysis. Interestingly enough, the film allows us the same opportunity. We’re a third wheel in on the ride taking in the company, applying our own diagnoses along the way. The film supplies little pop, but the relationships, and the actors bringing them to life, offer much to let in and appreciate.
“A Dangerous Method” opens in LA and NY on Nov. 23.