Something of a change of pace for celebrated body-horror director David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method is an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about the professional disagreements between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, arguably the two most significant figures in the history of psychoanalysis. Freud is keen to keep all psychological research on a strictly scientific footing in order to deny critics of his controversial findings easy leverage to discredit him, while Jung, who is initially a loyal disciple of the older man, finds himself increasingly drawn to investigate non-rational ideas such as telepathy and the collective subconscious. The catalyst for this change in Jung’s thinking (in the film, if not necessarily in real life) is the seemingly hopelessly hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein, who he successfully treats using Freud’s techniques and then finds himself both drawn towards and challenged by when it becomes clear that she has an interest in and considerable talent for psychoanalysis herself.
This is a talky and in some ways rather old-fashioned film, being made up as it is mainly of long dialogue scenes between two or three of the principals in beautifully recreated early twentieth century studies and parlours, but it’s a lot more entertaining than my dry description above might lead you to believe. Michael Fassbender seems to have a contract to appear in every arthouse movie at the minute, but that’s fine, as he’s clearly earned the privilege – in his earnest and conflicted take on Carl Jung he’s almost unrecognisable as the man who gave us Shame‘s sex-addict – and Viggo Mortensen also gets a chance to show his versatility as the sometimes wry, sometimes waspish Freud, again miles away from his usual quiet-hero roles. Keira Knightley gets the chance to try out both her Russian accent and some faintly disturbing facial contortions in the early scenes when she’s in fits of hysteria (it’s a Cronenberg trademark to sometimes dispassionately depict his cast members as essentially writhing pieces of meat), though for me she’s just too much of a famous face to allow proper suspension of disbelief. The script is sharp and intelligent, presenting Jung’s multiple dilemmas sympathetically, while handing most of the pithy punchlines to Freud, and Cronenberg keeps things moving at a pace, changing locations and situations briskly enough that you can just about forgive me using the hoary old practice of using voiceover to relay the contents of handwritten letters to the audience. More than anything else though it’s the immaculately rendered but never over-fussy period details that make this a pleasant film to spend time with: beautiful Swiss country houses with lakes, elegant Viennese architecture, stylish and never crumpled costumes and some very pleasing facial ornamentation (beards, spectacles, pipes and hats). Definitely not a major piece of work, but more than adequately diverting, and despite a couple of pretty mild sex and violence scenes proof that Cronenberg can still deliver even when he’s reining it in.