Any movie directed by the legendary David Cronenberg will conjure up a certain image in the minds of those who, like me, were brought up by his classic 70s horror movies like Scanners, Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome, The Fly et al.
A Dangerous Method is, however, radically different, further evidence of Cronenberg’s maturity. Accepting that period drama with a fine cast is always a saleable commodity, Cronenberg has taken a huge risk by portraying the intellectual and psychological battleground that was the relationship between Freud and Jung, with Sabina Spielrein as the emotional ping-pong ball in their game of mental table-tennis.
If you’re going to build a drama about difficult topics, you need to start with quality raw materials, chief among which is the fine script by Christopher Hampton based on his own play The Talking Cure and the eponymous non-fiction account of the events written by John Kerr. This is not easy material to write or direct, given that in a 95 minute movie you can only ever hope to caricature the complexities of psychoanalysis and the theories of the respective protagonists. Experts would probably tell us that the depiction of the debate barely scratches the surface, yet it is a credit to Hampton and Cronenberg that the results are watchable, intelligent and thought-provoking in equal measure without ever misrepresenting its primary source material.
But while psychoanalysis is the backdrop, the movie is really an intense 3-way human drama: the brilliant young psychiatrist; his mentor, with whom he disagrees on several key theoretical elements of new talking cure they are building; and the patient who both brought them together, whose brilliance enables her to overcome her condition and eventually qualify as a psychoanalyst in her own right, and with whom he has an affair.
This is indeed the stuff of human dramas, though Cronenberg cannot resist indulging the more prurient aspects of his nature by exploring the sado-masochistic nature of Jung’s affair with Spielrein, whether for titilation and get bums on seats, or because in his opinion the story could not be told without so doing I will leave to your imagination, though the explanation Jung uses to appease his own conscience for an unforgivable and shameless subversion of the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship is that their sexual contact is part of her treatment. Dream on!
But either way you need actors capable of delivering the depth of performance to portray complex characters, and they don’t come much deeper than Jung, Spielrein and Freud. There can be little doubting that Keira Knightly, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen do indeed cut the mustard, though the invariably excellent Vincent Cassel comes close to stealing the movie with an energetic cameo as schizophrenic sex maniac and psychoanalyst Otto Gross, whom Jung treats as a patient but suffers the classic turned tables as the patient delivers a telling blow to the doctor’s burgeoning ego.
Knightly in particular shines during the early scenes, the intensity and passion of her performance shows there is more to this actress than meets the eye. She will mature into a fine character actress, the Judi Dench or Maggie Smith of the next generation.
I did wonder whether the message ran out of steam before the end of the movie. It would appear to be plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Jung stays in his marriage to Emma, but with a different mistress; Spielrein goes back to Russia to practice; and Freud escapes the Nazis by travelling to London. Did any of them learn anything? Clearly Spielrein gained the most, but being phenomenally bright maybe she would have flourished even without her encounters with the two leading lights of psychoanalysis; did they cure her or merely inspire her?
So in summary, a flawed movie but a worthwhile attempt. Cronenberg has made a small movie of these events, but then small movies are his style. He lacks the wherewithal to make films with a capital F, movies on the scale of a de Mille or a Spieberg. Maybe another director would have turned this into an Oscar-winning extravaganza, but what the Canadian master has achieved is definitely worthy of note for its intelligence, entertainment value and finely honed performances. Go see!