London Film Festival 2011 Review: A DANGEROUS METHOD

A Dangerous Method is probably the tamest film David Cronenberg will ever make, but it is nevertheless worthy as a well-acted skewering of overreaching psychology.

rating: 3

Given his versed history in the genre of psycho noir, it would follow that employing David Cronenberg to tackle a film about the two most instrumental figures in psychology would be a snug, sure fit. Perhaps yearning for recognition as something other than a director of gory, shocking horrors after recently directing several acclaimed dramas which nevertheless failed to shake up the Academy - the outstanding A History of Violence and the impressive Eastern Promises - Cronenberg reunites with Viggo Mortensen once again for the watchable if curiously sterile A Dangerous Method, a film which should in no way be considered the Best Picture candidate we were all expecting, or at least hoping for. Based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure - and adapted for the screen here himself - A Dangerous Method centers around Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his adoption of Sigmund Freud's (Mortensen) controversial psychoanalysis technique. Key is a mentally disturbed young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who Jung practises Freud's pioneering therapy on, before embarking on an extra-marital affair with her, while forging an uneasy partnership of ideas with Freud. Naturally, it isn't too long before Jung's misdeeds come to impinge on his work. While Cronenberg's film is disappointingly meek as the rough, uncompromisingly honest film about the human mind - and invariably, sex - that one might have expected, it does at least have the mirth and well-humoured intent to mock the more tenuous aspects of the institution that these two men helped build as it is today. In hilarious fashion, Cronenberg sends up the very concept of psychoanalysis; an early word association session between Jung and his wife (Sarah Gadon) quite obviously has her feeding him what she thinks he wants to hear, and naturally, Jung delights in her responses. Thus, while the film is in its own way a superficial adoration of the divisive discipline, it isn't afraid to highlight some inherent flaws, and frankly, just how silly it can be. The film, likewise, is thoroughly daft, and not at all the prestige Oscar pic we all would have bet our chips on six months ago. The lean 93-minute runtime seems dangerously so given the heady subject matter, but it in fact winds up a blessing given the film's rigid composition as a chamber piece, a result of it having been adapted from Hampton's play as well as his own lack of an idea about how to stage something dramatically for the screen as opposed to the stage. That, or he has a simple stubbornness against altering his material. Mortensen's Freud surprisingly doesn't appear until the end of act one, and then weaves in and out of the picture, like a phantom, while we observe Jung's progressively idiotic dalliances with Sabina. As this relationship begins to threaten his own professional one with Freud, an amusing oedipal tone begins to seep into the film; Freud is the disapproving father who Jung will have to snuff out to indulge his desires free of scrutiny. With that reading, we realise how often we reach to make these contemporary links, not only in literature and other aspects of culture, but in life, and it is in its own way a testament to the influence of their work, no matter how absurd some of it in actual fact might seem. It's just a shame that Jung's submission to his id is rendered in such dispiritingly bland fashion, especially for a film from a director who has previously shown us exploding heads, torrid oral sex, and even a sexual act with a stump once before. The reason it is still worth watching - aside from a casually mocking tone - is the acting. Mortensen is especially good here, made up to very much mirror the statuesque visage we have of Freud, while coming off as a good deal more sensible and gathered than one might anticipate. Fassbender isn't far behind - though a lot more difficult to warm to - as the protagonist, a surprisingly stupid character whose indiscretions become only more insufferable as the film progresses. Vincent Cassell, meanwhile, has a fun supporting role as Dr. Otto Gross, a psychiatrist who represents a very different school of thought to Freud and Jung, surrendering entirely to his id, often with hilarious results. The film's talking point - for reasons more bad than good, I imagine - will be Keira Knightley's turn as the femme driving a wedge between the two leads. It's a real curio of a performance, at times devastatingly committed and at others stagey and blatantly overacted, such that a lot of the time, you won't know whether to laugh or lavish praise on her. That her bickering with Jung eats up a lot of the breezy runtime is unfortunate, but her loony role guarantees you won't be bored above all else. It's disappointing without a doubt given the talent on hand, but there's just about enough here to justify a punt; think of it as chewing gum for the brain rather than a visceral workout of a meal like we might have hoped for. A Dangerous Method is probably the tamest film David Cronenberg will ever make, but it is nevertheless worthy as a well-acted skewering of overreaching psychology. A Dangerous Method is out in the U.S. on November 23rd and shamefully, not out in the U.K. till February 10th 2012!
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.