After re-inventing himself with the gritty crime fare of A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), director David Cronenberg turns in a surprisingly disappointing follow-up with A Dangerous Method, a limp and uninteresting historic drama that would thrive on — but is completely lacking — the psychosexual tension that usual permeates Cronenberg’s work.
The movie centers on a particular period of strife between Drs. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) during the turn of the 20th century, brought about by a case that brought the two together and eventually tore them apart. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure, it focuses on the two pioneers and their patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), plagued by fits of hysterics as well as some deep-seated sexual dysfunction.
Even though they both believe in the budding (and then-controversial) science of psychotherapy, Freud and Jung are at odds over technique (the former is more rational, the latter more spiritual). Complicating matters are Jung’s extramarital affairs (including some with patients, one of them Sabina), Freud’s feelings of professional jealousy and inferiority, and a suicidal patient (Vincent Cassel) whom both are trying to help.
Granted, Cronenberg has mellowed just a tad in his old age, so it would be unfair to expect Crash mixed with The Age of Innocence, but it’s nevertheless disappointing to see a director so well-known for skillfully exploring aberrant sexuality and the psychology behind it take a milquetoast approach to what could have been a daring, intelligent film. Instead, we get something cold, distant, unarousing, and unchallenging. Seriously, there are episodes of Masterpiece Theatre that are bolder than this.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal, however, if there were more to propel the narrative — like, oh, a story. Cronenberg’s approach is dialogue-heavy — great for an idea-driven film about two thinking men obsessed with plumbing the depths of the human psyche — but the plot is bare bones. We’re asked to casually observe as emotionally distant characters interact for 99 minutes.
Fassbender and Mortensen give fascinating and nuanced performances as duelling psychoanalyst frenemies, but they are unfortunately undermined by Knightley’s hammy histrionics and ridiculous over-acting. She literally gnashes her teeth and bugs her eyes out in a one-note, campy portrayal of insanity that seems meant for an entirely different movie one almost feels embarassed for her, and in the scenes requiring Fassbender to spank her, you half-suspect that it has more to do with frustration than eroticism.