David Cronenberg’s new film is a change of pace for the seldom gore-shy director of The Fly and A History of Violence, being a talky period drama about the birth of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century. But while the body-horror auteur’s traditionally extreme visuals are absent, his ability to create a sense of broiling unease is palpably present, ensuring what could have been a dry history lesson is in fact a strangely gripping intellectual thriller. What Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting from his own play, The Talking Cure) offer here is a rigorous dramatic investigation of the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, seen through the prism of the relationship between the fledgling discipline’s two main proponents, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). It makes for a fascinating imaginative insight into a moment in history when the world of thought, and the way that we think about ourselves, was being fundamentally reshaped.
The film begins at fever pitch as hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is manhandled into Jung’s Zurich hospital. The story then follows Jung as he successfully treats Spielrein using Freud’s controversial principles, but then begins to question his theories as he is drawn into a transgressive affair with her. Fassbender bears the bulk of the film’s dramatic weight, and thoroughly convinces as the dispassionate analyst, only too keen to use his own life as a testing ground for scientific breakthrough. Mortensen is equally effective as Freud, playing him with a humorous charm that conceals an unsettling lack of humanity. While some audiences may struggle to warm to A Dangerous Method’s largely cerebral pleasures, those keen to delve into the darker recesses of the human mind couldn’t wish for a more capable guide than Cronenberg.
This review originally published in The List magazine.