A slow moving drama centered around the science of psychology may initially seem an odd choice for director David Cronenberg‘s latest project, but A Dangerous Method proves to be an engaging study of the minds and hearts of three individuals, each of whom finds themselves at the mercy of their uncontrollable passions and foibles.
Based on the play by Christopher Hampton and the book by John Kerr, Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton deliver a character study centered around three people central to the birth of psychoanalysis. Michael Fassbender stars as Carl Jung, a doctor who in the early 20th Century would expand on the ideas of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to create analytical psychology.
Jung’s breakthrough comes through his relationship with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a mental patient whom he is able to help by applying Freud’s methods. It is through his relationship with Sabina that Jung meets his idol and begins a collaborative friendship. However, it is the romantic nature of his relationship with Sabina that begins the split between the two fathers of psychology.
Knightley is terrific in the role of Sabina, a Russian with a history of hysteria and disruptive and violent outbursts. During her sessions with Jung, Sabina reveals her humiliation and beatings by her father and the secret joy which she took from them. The actress throws all caution to the wind showcasing her range in capturing the tortured soul of a woman through her tics, body contortions, deep-rooted sexual deviancy, tenderness, and keen intellect which is slowly freed thanks to the “talking cure.”
For years Jung and Sabina’s relationship remains platonic, and, with the help of Frued’s method, Sabina’s condition continues to improve. At Freud’s request Jung begins treating a fellow psychologist, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), whose view on living in excess and giving in to one’s desires is the final straw which turns Jung and Sabina’s relationship from platonic to sexual.
Unable to leave the luxury his wealthy wife (Sarah Gadon) provides, Jung is forced to end the affair with Sabina. His relationship with Freud also deteriorates as well, first due first to Jung’s relationship with Sabina and later to their divergent philosophies as Jung chafes against Freud’s unwillingness to broaden the bounds of psychoanalysis outside of hard science.
Although Jung and Freud’s relationship is destroyed over the course of the film, Sabina stands tall as the example of what psychoanalysis can accomplish. In many ways she is the bridge between them and the true daughter of psychology. As the movie shows, she would go on to become psychologist herself.
Fassbender is well-cast in the role of the young doctor who gets in over his head, not only with one of his patients, but with his slavish devotion to Freud’s method. In his rebellion of Freud by following paths the older doctor fears are out of bounds, the pair go from being friendly collaborators to bitter rivals. Although there disagreements are rooted in philosophical disagreements over the future of the science, one of Cronenberg’s best choices is to show the how childish are their reactions as they part ways.
Great care was taken to recreate the feel of the age in which the film is set. Cronenberg choose to use real locations, when possible, including shooting sequences in Freud’s home and at Burgholzli Hospital where Jung first met Sabina. If the characters sound of the period as well we can thank Hampton’s script which lifts dialogue directly from existing correspondence between Jung, Freud, and Sabina.
It may not be what some fans of Cronenberg expect, but A Dangerous Method proves to be a smart character study of not one but three main characters, their relationships, and their lasting effect on the field of psychology. Worth seeing for Knightley’s performance alone, it’s an easy recommendation.