By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS )– A Dangerous Method explores the early years of modern psychiatry, when patients taking a chance on this revolutionary mind-and-body practice that introduced them (and us) to the unconscious mind were still Jung and easily Freudened.
Set before World War I, the period drama concerns the turbulent and shifting relationships among psychiatrists Carl Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, the woman whose treatment they disagree about, and who becomes involved with each of them in different ways.
Michael Fassbender plays Swiss psychiatrist Jung, seemingly the heir apparent to father-of-psychoanalysis Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, with whom he would appear to be tangled in a form of Oedipal complex, the controversial theory that Freud would go on to make part of our collective consciousness.
Keira Knightley plays Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish patient of Jung’s who becomes his lover and who will eventually become one of the first female psychoanalysts, and a prominent one at that.
When we first meet the deeply disturbed, severely neurotic, obviously intelligent, but sexually repressed Spielrein in the film’s first scene, Jung, using Freud’s methods, is treating her for seizures and hysteria in his clinic near Zurich.
Although he is married, Jung — despite his realization that he is violating a professional standard and feeling an undeniable degree of shame — enters into a tortured love affair with her.
Jung and Freud disagree on a number of issues, including Jung’s sexual involvement with patients — something that Freud, singularly focused on sexual repression as the source of most forms of neurosis, himself avoids and strongly disapproves of as a muddying-the-waters complication.
Eventually, Spielrein, at the urging of Jung, becomes a patient of Freud’s in Vienna, thus positioning herself, one way or the other, between the two psychiatric giants.
It’s not exactly a love triangle, but it’s close.
For director David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Crash, Eastern Promises, The Fly), this is an elegant and restrained excursion into the arena of mental illness and sexual perversity, but one devoid of his characteristic penchant for violence and body-horror flourishes.
The screenplay — adapted by Christopher Hampton from his 2002 stage play “The Talking Cure,” which was itself based on John Kerr’s 1993 nonfiction book, The Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein — honors historical facts in its exploration of elemental emotions, demanding desires, and abiding appetites.
All three leads are certainly skilled and competent, as the precise and versatile (and, lately, ubiquitous) Fassbender and the slyly understated Mortensen make valuable and appropriate contributions to Cronenberg’s canvas. Here are two iconic historical figures brought to unfussy three-dimensional life.
Knightley, on the other hand, gambles in her early scenes by employing a dangerous thespian method and playing her manic hysteria with broad, bizarre, jaw-jutting ferociousness — that is, displaying a grotesque array of tics as a way of demonstrating what makes this woman tick that threatens not only to put us off but to distract us from the historical narrative.
And yet we come to appreciate what she is doing and the chancy but brave way she approaches it, even if we feel denied the calibrations that take her from one end of the psychoanalytic behavioral spectrum to the other.
Vincent Cassell also shows up in hedonistic support, playing Otto Gross, a fellow psychiatrist and cocaine addict who challenges Jung to fight his feeling of repression and appreciation of monogamy and, where sex is concerned, to do what he wants to do.
A Dangerous Method can surely be accused of being a talky movie, but given that it concerns an introspection technique and style of therapy that encourages and depends on talk, this dialogue-heavy approach does not really seem a failing or an indulgence, even if the stream of talk does tend to keep us at arm’s length and create a certain emotional distance.
So we’ll psychoanalyze 2½ stars out of 4 for A Dangerous Method, a calm and elegant, cerebral and compelling, shrink-wrapped psychodrama that’s never silly but a trifle chilly.