By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
In 1962, director John Huston made “Freud,” starring Montgomery Clift as the father of psychoanalysis. It might not sound like the sexiest material (the studio desperately tried to add spice with a subtitle, “The Secret Passion”), but the fascinating saga of Freud’s early breakthroughs in the study of the subconscious mind turned out to have the gripping suspense of a detective story.
Some of that appeal is on display in “A Dangerous Method,” a terrific new film about the early days of psychoanalysis. It’s so early that Carl Jung, a promising doctor in Zurich, calls the practice “psych-analysis,” until he is gently corrected by Professor Freud, who correctly observes that, among other things, psychoanalysis simply sounds better than the alternative.
Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, is the central figure in “A Dangerous Method,” which is scripted by the Oscar-winning writer Christopher Hampton. The film’s Jung is a respectably married Swiss golden boy, drawn into a challenging case with a disturbed but brilliant young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).
Like the other characters, Spielrein is an actual historical figure, and her closeness to Jung is cause for concern back in Vienna, where Jung’s mentor, the eminent Freud (Viggo Mortensen), looks on with cagey interest.
I’ve heard the movie described as “talky.” If interaction between people who are debating ideas that will define the progress of the 20th century is talky, then I guess that’s true, rivetingly true. The conversation is scientific but also personal, as the three people sort out their own issues.
For Jung and Spielrein, those issues include sexual attraction. For Freud and Jung, their diverging theories about psychoanalysis create tension, but so do social matters: Jung, as a wealthily married Aryan, has certain doors open to him that Freud must be very pragmatic about trying to enter.
David Cronenberg directs this story in a classical style, which provides a fitting counterpart to the violent emotions that are teeming within. He completely gets the material: His movies, whether straight horror (“The Fly”) or drama (“A History of Violence”) deal with the way what’s going on beneath the surface of events inevitably finds its way to the surface, which might be a description of the psychoanalytic understanding of people.
Viggo Mortensen’s embodiment of Freud, all cigar-smoke wisdom and singsong voice, is one of my favorite performances of the year.
The very professional turns by Mortensen and Fassbender make Keira Knightley’s work stand out for its wildness; she’s out of key with the others, but that jibes with her character’s place in the story. She’s equally credible when she’s unhinged or when she’s lucidly debating psychology.
Vincent Cassel contributes some brief but powerful scenes as a half-mad analyst, whose philosophy of “repressing nothing” affects Jung’s thinking.
This movie might affect your thinking, too; if you think listening to brilliant people walking and talking can be a scintillating movie spectacle, this one’s for you.
“A Dangerous Method” (four stars)
Philosophical debates between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) come to a head over Jung’s intense relationship with a brilliant patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). This scintillating portrait of people creating ideas that will define the 20th century is gripping, and directed in a classical style by David Cronenberg.
Rated: R for nudity, subject matter.