Jarringly, A Dangerous Method starts with a disturbed and highly distressed woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). She is deeply agitated and upset and being assisted by two men in a horse-drawn carriage who are trying to calm her down. Arriving at the office of psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Jung calmly explains his procedures and sits down to begin the session. As Sabina resembles a frightened animal, with her distended jaw, and guttural protestations about why she is or is not how people perceive her, Jung takes notes and observes.
Directed by David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method opens in 1904 Zurich where Jung is a fledgling psychiatrist, married with a first child on the way. From appearances, he could care less about his expanding family and is really only inspired or excited by his work. Front and center for Jung is Sabina, who becomes much, if not all, that Jung thinks about day to day.As their sessions continue, Jung notices that Sabina is excited by Jung’s physicality with a stick and a dirty coat; the beating of the coat kindling something carnal within her. Jung is taken by this discovery but when alerting Sabina to his need to travel for work, she becomes inconsolable and and after his departure, nearly impossible to work with. When he returns, Sabina is calmer and more focused, with Jung making the peculiar decision to have her serve as his research assistant.
In 1906, at a dinner party in Vienna, Jung meets the famed Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Completely comfortable with one another, Jung and Freud share stories, theories, and contemplations with each other until realizing their first meeting had escalated to 13 hours. Over time, Jung and Freud become colleagues and rivals, unified as long as Freud had Jung’s attentiveness. As Jung begins to speak more directly and forward about his discoveries and psychoanalytical beliefs, Freud becomes less enamored with Jung, but Sabina is the connection for both. When Sabina and Jung take their doctor/assistant/patient relationship to new and alarming places, the film takes a unique turn towards the psychologies of all the parties involved. Ethics are questioned and blurred, professional friendships and respect grows increasingly tenuous, and at the heart of it all is a woman, disturbed and on the road to recovery. How she gets there, what leads her there, and whether or not she is truly rehabilitated is open to much debate; often between the two legendary figures whose rivalry is well-documented and debated.
Adapted from his stage play The Talking Cure and Jonathan Kerr’s book which shares the same name as the film, Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton has an intriguing landscape to work within. Jung and Freud each deserve their own biopics and when a third party, in this case a young and impressionable woman enters into the equation, the verbal gamesmanship and battle of wills between the two icons is fascinating to watch. Michael Fassbender is compelling as Carl Jung, reserved and composed outwardly and lost, self-absorbed, and searching on the inside. While soft spoken and professional, Jung is conflicted intellectually, emotionally, and physically; as journeyed as his patients. That dichotomy in emotions which Fassbender brings to the screen with his portrayal is impressive and curious.
Underused but compelling is Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Sigmund Freud. Mortensen is a Cronenberg staple nowadays and watching him brazenly react and respond to Jung is a joy. Mortensen provides some much needed levity to the film’s dramatic tone and is easily, for me, the best thing about A Dangerous Method.
Much of your reaction to all of this will emanate from your response to the Keira Knightley performance, which is truly the heartbeat and pulse of the picture. Knightley is mesmerizing as Sabina, the Russian woman who transforms incredibly from damaged and broken to a transformed graduate. As deeply internal as Fassbender’s performance is, Knightley is outwardly bold and striking – initially comprising of contortions, tics and manic mannerisms, and eventually a vulnerability and fearfulness that is striking and alarming. Damaged and hard to understand, Knightley captures riveting emotional highs and lows and while I found the performance impressive, some may feel it is simply too much and the subtleties may be lost in the maelstrom of emotions displayed on screen.
A Dangerous Method is a thought-provoking film which plays as a romance, drama, light comedy, and an intense exploration of human desires and emotions. The film is soaked in dialogue and covers a lot of ground, but is so well acted that even when it begins to drag, you are curious about what is coming next. Ultimately, the humor fades away, the powerful emotional acting transitions out and the story becomes a bit mundane and inert.
A Dangerous Method is technically sound in its below-the-line elements and with three fine performances propelling the film along, David Cronenberg has made an intriguing film. I am not entirely sure A Dangerous Method is anything I wish to see again, but fans of the subject matter, the period, and the actors involved will find a lot to chew on and consider.