A Dangerous Method is the third collaboration between director David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). It also caps off an amazing year for future Oscar-winner Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Shame). The movie is all about the early days of psychoanalysis. Fassbender is Carl Jung, the affluent Protestant who tries out the so-called “Talking Cure” on new patient Sabina Spielrein played by Keira Knightley.
Sabina is suffering from hysteria and when we first see her she is barely able to sit still or even speak without jutting out her jaw like something out of a J-Horror film. Eventually, Jung’s methods pay off and Sabina’s case leads to the famous friendship and later rivalry between Jung and Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen. Jung also begins a morally questionable affair with Sabina as he strives to figure out what cures, methods, and lifestyle are most appropriate in a pre-WWI world.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of psychology is limited to a semester in community college. I know some things about id and ego and what have you, but I know very little about the history. In fact, before this movie, I had never even heard of Sabina Spielrein. The subject and its history are actually quite fascinating, the problem with the movie is that it presents it all without any drama. I don’t need to be an expert to tell you that this film is far too clinical. It’s one of those movies where you have no idea if it’s almost over because there hasn’t really been a climax and nothing has really happened.
The gist of the story is one man sleeps with someone he shouldn’t and then disagrees with his mentor. This is all told over long conversations about dreams (literal), desires, and ethics. It’s not that the film doesn’t have something to say, but without a little more action it plays like a history/ethics lesson with a few scenes of people being spanked. It’s nice to have subtext, and one would expect a film about Freud/Jung to have some, but a movie needs to have an interesting surface before it can have anything below it. Otherwise, the film’s ideas about religion, class, ethnicity and sex are all for naught.
The three leads are very good, and do their very best to liven up the proceedings. Knightley takes a big risk with a difficult Russian accent and an exaggerated physical performance, but I think it pays off. Mortensen gets the more fun and funny role, chewing up the scenery with his fatherly charm and wit, while staying very subdued. He should seriously think about exclusively working with Cronenberg because he seems to be at his best in his films. Fassbender does his best with a role that requires him to be either conflicted or constrained at all times; despite the limitations, and the fact that it is my least favorite of his 2011 performances, it is still fine work.
I know it is no easy task creating entertainment out of the birth of something so academic, but simply bringing these characters to life and peering into the past is not enough for a movie. I don’t expect Cronenberg to falsify some drama, but he does need to fabricate more than just a dissertation.