I had such high expectations for “A Dangerous Method” that I drove 45 minutes to see it. How could it miss!? Director David Cronenberg, a genius in directing films about the perversion in human minds and bodies, the brilliant Christopher Hampton — author of “Dangerous Liaisons” — penning the screenplay, and starring the impeccably cast Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud?
The problem with this film is structural. Although Hampton and Cronenberg had a rich universe of psycho-sexual, imaginal and mystical material to work with, they chose to tell the story in a strictly chronological, narrative fashion. The end result was, for me, an artistic betrayal of the subject matter in favor of a sedate drawing room drama with a skotsch of kink. As the film unfolds with scene after scene of people sitting at breakfast and talking, walking through gardens and talking, sitting in perfectly appointed studies and talking, it is left entirely to Keira Knightley, as the neurotic Sabina Spielrein, to deliver the sense of depth, passion and crazy innate to the human soul that Jung and Freud were trying to treat with their pioneering “talking cure.”
Perhaps another actress might have done a better job conveying the torments of a woman in the grip of hysterical neurosis than Knightley, but she is thoroughly unconvincing in the early scenes of the film, chewing scenery and contorting her mouth and hands to show her mental anguish. She might have been helped by some flashbacks or some directorial flourish to tell the story, but she, and we, are left only with her Extreme Emoting. She does her best, but Cronenberg and Hampton should be sued for artistic negligence.
Fassbender and Mortensen are wonderful in their scenes as Herr Doktor Freud and his disciple, playing out the archetypal drama of the Senex and Puer as they first become spiritual and professional father and son, then rivals, and finally enemies. Hampton contributes his best writing to these scenes and the two men generate enough psychic intensity through their performances to give us a sense of the enormity of this conflict both for them and for the field of psychoanalysis.
I quipped on the way home that I felt like dressing up in white petticoats, smoking a cigar and spanking Michael Fassbender. “A Dangerous Method” is a good-enough movie, but for those who know the work of Jung, Freud, Cronenberg and Hampton, it is bound to be a major disappointment.