Some David Cronenberg fans might scratch their heads at ‘A Dangerous Method’, the new film from the Canadian director of ‘Crash’ and ‘A History of Violence’. It’s an unapologetically bloodless account of the testy, early-nineteenth-century friendships between both Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient-cum-lover Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and Jung and his better-known Austrian colleague Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). It’s a defiantly literary film, with a script by Christopher Hampton (‘Atonement’, ‘Cheri’) based on his play, and Cronenberg opts for a still, unfussy style of direction.
The story moves in a straight line from 1904 to 1913, offering these years as pivotal in Jung’s life and development as a psychiatrist. He settles in Zurich and has children with his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), and at the same time takes on the unsettling case of Spielrein, a disturbed but intelligent woman whose troubled family past suggests a strong link between distress and sexuality. Soon, he also begins a close intellectual affair with Freud in Vienna. The men share ideas, but they also clash, while at the same time Jung’s relationship with Spielrein becomes stormy and dangerous as the boundaries between doctor and patient collapse.
As a précis of Jung and Freud’s ideas and an accessible explanation of their evolution, ‘A Dangerous Method’ is effective, but it struggles to shrug off its theatrical roots. Knightley’s spirited embrace of her character’s hysteria will have some running for the exit, although as Spielrein becomes more interesting and three-dimensional, so does Knightley’s performance, which thankfully moves beyond the film’s very first scene of her kicking and screaming as she is carried into a mental hospital. Most of the scenes between Fassbender and Mortensen are quickfire and rigorous and add meat to the film’s sometimes shaky bones. Vincent Cassel’s brief appearances as the wild psychiatrist Otto Gross and the devil on Jung’s back, pushing him towards following his instincts – and striking up a sado-masochistic love affair with Spielrein, cue spanking! – loosen things up a little too.
It’s an unusual film for Cronenberg – but this idea can be overplayed. Is it really so odd that a man whose films have so often plunged the depths of the human mind should interest himself with the birth of twentieth-century thinking on how that same mind works? Let’s not forget, too, that one of his strongest films, ‘Spider’, was an imaginative account of a man cracking up. That starred Ralph Fiennes, who also played Jung in Hampton’s original mid-’90s play, and perhaps there’s an unbroken line of interest of Cronenberg’s part between the play and both films, especially as ‘A Dangerous Method’ was many years in gestation.
Whoever the director is, it’s undeniable that this is a conservative experience, visually, and suffers from the stuffiness of historical reconstruction, especially when so much of the drama is interior. It doesn’t help that Fassbender, Knightley and Mortensen all speak English with mittel-European accents – a dramatic affectation that one hoped was dying out after being pilloried by the likes of ‘Inglourious Basterds’. One of the strengths of the film and of Hampton’s script (and presumably his play before it) is that the film’s two distinct stories, Jung’s friendship with Freud and his painful romance with Spielrein, are fully complementary and each cleverly sheds light on the other. By the time the film leaps forward for a final epilogue in 1934, you feel that Cronenberg and Hampton have succeeded in a full and telling professional and personal portrait of Jung, even if the film that houses it is sometimes lacking.