As Freud said, "...it's really all about sex."
What could have been a fascinating study of two of the most brilliant and troubled men in the history of medical science devolves into a very well-made but rather frigid melodrama, an unlikely choice for director David Cronenberg. From the book "A Most Dangerous Method" by John Kerr and the subsequent Christopher Hampton play "The Talking Cure", A Dangerous Method follows Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender on a very good run; see Steve McQueen's Shame) as he is entrusted with a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly in the boldest performance of her career), a mentally damaged, anxiety-ridden Jewish-Russian whom Jung hopes to aid using Dr. Sigmund Freud's "Talking Cure". And he does just that, which eventually leads him to the office of Freud himself, played stoically by Viggo Mortensen (in a Golden Globe-nominated role).
The two men discuss long into the night (talking cure... yep there sure is a lot of talking), their respectful disagreement always hanging just below the surface. Freud frowns upon Jung's search for answers in "mysticism and fairies in the garden", while Jung has his own doubts about his bearded colleague's theories about sex. It isn't long before Jung and Sabina connect and he begins sexually indulging outside of his marriage (his wife, Emma, is heartbreakingly portrayed by Sarah Gadon), and Sabina's attachment beings to grow. The fact that it took this female patient, an aspiring doctor herself, to bring together the men who would father psychoanalysis reverberates through the rest of the film.
Such close attention to emotional detail is an unaccustomed choice for Cronenberg. Nobody grows a third arm. No vile and disgusting creatures climb out of the drain. Is this a quiet and more mature David Cronenberg? The only seemingly characteristic D.C. moments involve the sexuality of Knightly's character, her carnal desires and the details of her, ahem... deflowering. Sabina's disturbing introductory scenes leave such a sour taste that even after her recovery, I still found myself searching for facial ticks. Her mouth seems always ready to violently drop open and seize. But alas, the handling of the flashier parts of Knightly's character may have proven distracting on set, as her Russian accent came across as slightly cartoonish. I half expected a reference to some mysterious duo known only as 'Moose and Squirrel'. But I kid. Overall, her performance is daring but the stand-outs are unquestionably the two male leads.
Michael Fassbender, whose career continues to accelerate (X-Men: First Class, Inglourious Basterds, the upcoming Prometheus) gives perhaps his most subtle and controlled performance as the guilt-ridden and confused Dr. Jung. Mortensen once again proves that he will not be forever branded "That Guy from Lord of the Rings" as he masterfully sighs and cigar-chomps around his professorial flat. The way he brilliantly imbues Freud with so much true emotional weight is a sight to behold. Indeed, some of the film's most interesting sequences involve the polite intellectual sparring of the two doctors, the widening divide between them coming into view. Freud wishes to remain the revered elder statesman, admired from afar but never analyzed. Jung challenges him to little avail. It is that and Freud's discovery of Jung's extramarital affair with Sabina (a lowly patient, for God's sake!) that causes the eventual splintering of the friendship. Jung's own impending downfall will come as a result of his own lack of self awareness. He will experience the tragedy of being a person with all the answers to other people's questions but none to his own.
Nonetheless, the picture's fatal flaws lie with the material. The sheer coldness of much of the surface details may leave some viewers out in the snow. The director's underlying restraint occasionally borders on dullness. It's a ninety minute film that feels like two hours. But in its best moments, the themes feel almost Kubrickian, as a repressed intellectual debate rages between two respected men of science, against a backdrop of stunningly breathtaking scenery. It would be a sin not to mention the work of Production Designer James McAteer and Director of Photography Peter Suschitzky, which is remarkable. Its sterility and stuffiness aside, A Dangerous Method is beautifully made.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.