In early-20th-century Switzerland, Carl Jung (Fassbender), disciple of father of psychotherapy Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), begins to treat a seriously disturbed young woman (Knightley). But, as their relationship becomes dangerously intimate, Jung begins to wonder whether Freud's theories aren't fatally flawed.
Well, they do call it the talking cure, so Cronenberg fans on the hunt for exploding heads and insect/human hybrids, return to your DVD collections. Instead, A Dangerous Method delivers quite a lot of, well, chat. In theory, though, this should be a fascinating conversation as two Titans of early psychoanalysis wrestle to establish what the dominant theory will be: is it all about sex, as Freud famously postulated, or, as his disciple and soon-to-be-rival Carl Jung suspects, is there more to it than that?
Of course, with the exception of eXistenZ, Cronenberg has been slowly moving away from his early body-horror roots for nearly two decades now, and his last two films, A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, were as accessible to multiplex audiences as anything he has made. A Dangerous Method continues this drift to the respectable: based on a play by Christopher Hampton it’s a precisely made, somewhat buttoned-up account of the men’s struggle for conceptual supremacy — it should be a ferociously interesting scrap, but the screenplay doesn’t put the two together often enough, and the promised intellectual fireworks never arrive.
The first and most serious challenge it throws us is Keira Knightley’s alarmingly physical performance as Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s patient and lover. We first see her restrained in a carriage galloping towards the booby hatch: writhing, grunting, gurning and sticking her chin out at an alarming angle: it’s a thoroughly disquieting sight, and one from which, for some audiences, it will be difficult to recover. (Cronenberg insists that the symptoms of her psychosis are accurately presented, as is a key element of Jung’s cure: fulfilling her desire for spanking sessions, which he provides with grim thoroughness.) It’s not helped by the fact that even when cured, Spielrein is an austere, somewhat unsympathetic character. Viggo Mortensen might be an unusual choice for Sigmund Freud, but he’s surprisingly convincing, though hardly in it enough to make much of an impact. The bulk of the heavy lifting, then, falls to the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender, who plays Jung as a moderately tortured soul, desperate to avoid a decisive break with his mentor but convinced the old guy’s got nookie on the brain. His own theorising, involving the importance of coincidence and the spiritual realm, horrify the ultra-rationalist Freud and form the basis for their split. It’s all very intelligent and moderately informative — but just ever so slightly dull.
Despite a top-notch cast performing well, and bravely in the case of Knightley, this is an austere, somewhat repressed movie. It never really gets under the skin in the way Cronenberg does at his best.