Not long after beginning his professional career, psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) begins treating Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who has been diagnosed with the catchall condition ďfemale hysteria.Ē Using techniques steeped in the psychoanalytic method developed by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Jung cures her. She becomes his research assistant, and also his lover. When Freud learns of the affair, a wedge is driven between the two men.
A Dangerous Method is well acted, and David Cronenberg directs with his typically exacting control, but the movie lacks one thing: a purpose. Thereís no real story here, and what little there is suffers from a distinct lack of dramatic fire and drive. Despite its pedigree, the movie plays a little like an extended skit members of the American Psychological Association might have thrown together to entertain themselves at their last meeting.
Writer Christopher Hampton deserves most of the blame. His script was adapted from his play The Talking Cure, which was itself inspired by John Kerrís nonfiction book A Most Dangerous Method. Hampton wasnít able to fashion a compelling narrative out of Kerrís book. This is a stodgy chamber piece, scene after scene of people talking, talking, and talking. (Thereís never any question this originated on the stage. For what little Cronenberg is able to do to open it up visually, a photographed stage presentation likely wouldnít have been all that different.) And most of that talk is dry and academic; much of the dialogue sounds as if the characters are reading from a textbook.
You may very well disagree, but for me thereís nothing interesting or entertaining about straight-faced discussions of penis envy and anal expulsiveness. (It probably doesnít help that Iíve always found the vast majority of Freudís ideas to be poppycock [lame pun fully intended]. But even if I didnít, I imagine all of the stilted dialogue here would still hurt my ears.)
Much of this is typical of Hamptonís lesser works, which outweigh his successes. For ever Dangerous Liaisons or Atonement you get a Mary Reilly, a Beyond the Limit, a The Secret Agent, and a Cheri. Hampton sets a few characters against one another, and he gives them a lot to say (much of it ostensibly of some portent), but more often that not nothing much ever comes of it.
Thereís a conflict here between Jung and Freud, one between Jung and Spielrein, and yet another between Jung and himself, but none of itís the least bit compelling. It all more or less comes down to a fight over whether or not a research paper will be published and whose name will be on it if/when it does get published. What sort of drama is that? And I get that all of the talk the characters bandy about while discussing the psychological trauma of others is really about themselves, but so what? The fact that itís obvious in an ironic way doesnít make it any less obvious.
Although at first glance this might not seem like the sort of story Cronenberg would be compelled to tell, his typical themes do come into play here. Itís easy to spot the psychosexual tension, but the transformations are there, too; their form is just less overt and in something of a different guise. (Think of the way Scorsese turned his typical physical violence into emotional and verbal violence in The Age of Innocence and youíll have something of an idea of what Cronenberg does with his own obsessions here.) His cold, clinical approach to the material works, but I wish heíd been a little less deliberate when it came to the pacing (which is very, very, very deliberate). His visuals are static, unadorned, almost flat, often little more than two people isolated against a wall.
Of course, heís never been much for grandiose visuals, and what he has to work with here forces him to strip down his already stripped-down style even further. Somewhat ironically, the few scenes that attempt to move the story beyond its stage-bound stylistics are the least visually interesting; thereís nothing wrong with Cronenbergís staging or composition, but the visual effects used to pull them off are terrible, drawing attention to their terribleness in a way that makes focusing on anything else impossible.
The three leads are excellent. You could say Fassbender has the easiest role, as no one has any preconceived dramatic notions about Yung. That would be something of a disservice to Fassbender, though; to whatever degree you think it works, the movie rests on his shoulders, and he more than carries it. Mortensen (who took over for Christoph Waltz) deserves credit not only for the strength of his performance but also for making his Freud something other than the unintentionally amusing caricature dramatic portrayals generally are (i.e., an ubiquitous cigar and a funny accent).
Knightley is equally good, but some may have trouble with the, for lack of a better word, theatricality of her performance. Itís big at times, bordering on what Stanley Kubrick once described as ďLon Chaney-big.Ē But that theatricality is necessary, especially when you consider the way the character changes over the course of the movie. (Knightley also deserves credit for coming through the spanking scene with her dignity intact. If youíve ever wondered why more movies donít feature spanking scenes, the one here will provide you the answer.)
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is a good one, but intermittent problems with the contrast drag it down some. The image is unnaturally bright at times, which blows out white and leads to some blooming and haloing. It can also be a little overly soft at times. At its best, though, the image has a natural look, albeit one thatís just a bit cold (which Iím sure is intentional). Colors, which are generally subdued, can look very good. (Iíve taken a brief look at the Blu-ray release, which is much, much better, exhibiting almost none of the problems of its standard-def counterpart.)
The sound mix is dialogue-heavy, which means this discís Dolby Digital 5.1 track is front-heavy. Thereís some mild atmosphere in the rears, as well as some music bleed, but thatís it. Dialogue sounds fine, and Howard Shoreís excellent music (a mixture of original score and period compositions) is given a good presentation, which is pretty much all you could ask for here. No other audio options are included; English, English SDH, and French subtitles are available.
The commentary by David Cronenberg is another excellent track from the director. He gives an in-depth discussion of most aspects of the production, and he also provides some historical context for some of the events depicted in the movie.
The Making of A Dangerous Method (8 minutes) is your standard behind-the-scenes/promotional piece.
AFIís Harold Lloyd Master Seminar (31 minutes) is an interview with Cronenberg conducted at the American Film Institute.
Is it worth seeing? Eh, Iím not so sure. I do know that only the Cronenberg faithful will want to buy it. Everyone else is advised to rent it, and even then only after careful thought.